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Community Colleges: Students Come In, Employees Emerge

The Exchange

Editor's note: This is part two of an article examining the nation's community colleges. Part one is Community Colleges: Higher Ed, Lower Cost.

For community colleges, working directly with area employers on job skills is essential to getting students placed in positions. This matters greatly in the modern economy because not every company can or will offer lengthy training for new hires.

Brookhaven sign

"When a company looks at how they maximize their resources, they might utilize our services on an as-needed basis or on-demand basis rather than support a whole arm of the organization that's responsible just for training," says Marilyn Lynch, associate vice president of career and program resources at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, Texas. "Those are non-income-producing things, more long-range."

Even if they want to, some firms are small, and their human resources divisions might not have the time to spend on anything beyond cursory orientation. Corporations increasingly perceive community colleges as responsive, prepared and anxious to fill jobs with their students."If you have shovel-ready projects, you need to have work-ready employees," says Dr. Thom Chesney, Brookhaven's president. "And the expectation is that this is where it will happen ... at a community college."

Business partners

The effect of the community college and business pairings, spread nationwide, has the potential to be a substantial force for good. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the U.S. had 3.7 million job openings at the end of October -- the largest number of vacancies are in education and health services and professional and business services -- whereas the latest monthly employment report said 12.2 million people were unemployed in America.

Education consistently has an impact on job status: For those without a high school diploma, the unemployment rate is 11.7%. It drops to 8% for high school graduates, then to 6.9% for students with some college or an associate degree. With a BA or above, the unemployment rate is just 3.9%.

Among Brookhaven's corporate arrangements are training programs that have been established with Ford (F) and General Motors (GM), the latter of which goes back more than 30 years. These relationships have allowed students over the years to gain proficiency on up-to-date automotive technology from the vehicle makers so that hopefully, upon graduation, they're ready to hit the ground running.

"We're very proud of those partnerships and have worked very hard to continue to nurture those and to respond," Lynch says. "And it's not the same program it was."

RELATED: Breakout's Matt Nesto recently looked at GM's technical partnership with colleges. See Who's Hiring? High Paying Jobs That Nobody Wants.

This building of specialized programs is critical to both Brookhaven and the surrounding community, says Chesney, because the college is trying to simultaneously fill gaps in education and workplace requirements.

"What do you need? Is it a set of courses? A set of skills? Is it an associate degree?" he says, describing the questions they ask business partners. "What is it that we can customize or build that might get some people right into that pipeline?"

One such arrangement exists with the Metrocrest Hospital Authority, a hospital-leasing local-government unit based close to the college. It's been a key player in Brookhaven's nurse-training program, providing funds to get it started and working with the school ever since.

"We have always had a very close connection to the college," says Charles Heath, Metrocrest's chief executive. "As we see health-care needs develop in the community, we have worked with Brookhaven to see if there's a way we can mutually address those needs."

Metrocrest, Heath says, has for years set up clinical rotations in two of its affiliated hospitals near campus for the nursing students, and after graduation, a number of Brookhaven-educated nurses have gone to work for his organization's facilities.

"Brookhaven has been very adaptive to the needs of the community," he says.

Readiness now

Before graduating high school, Patrizio Chiquini had to make a decision. He wanted to continue his education, and for him that meant choosing between going straight to a four-year university or staying close to home and completing his first two years at a community college. The 19-year-old ultimately settled on the latter, along with his twin brother Bruno, and a considerable part of the decision was affordability.

"The main reason was money-wise, financial-wise and also ... to be able to find a better, suitable major," Chiquini says. Additionally, he felt community college would keep him honest, ensuring he would be committed to his studies as opposed to being a freshman at a four-year college, "where there's so many distractions."

Michelle Yanez, an 18-year-old in her first semester, found her way to the college in part because she says she wasn't the most dedicated student in high school, and she felt her grades might hurt her chances of getting financial aid at a four-year school. She's planning to eventually go to a university, and during her stay at Brookhaven, she wants to focus on her marks.

"While I'm here, I'm trying really hard," she says. "I study a lot, and I'm trying to bring my GPA up. My goal is 3.5."

Though the students discussed here all expect to go on to a BA program, it's not always about a degree or a future transfer. Students might want only one or two courses, perhaps to learn time management at work, how to become a more effective supervisor or to improve office communication.

Rodger Bennett, Brookhaven's vice president of academic affairs and student success, notes that a segment of students aren't prepared to enter the workforce without first gaining proficiency in writing, math or English as a second language, and Brookhaven offers those classes as well.

"And then we have a whole host of other courses," Bennett says, "credit and career and technical, that at least get students up to a point where they can be successful in the courses that are then going to lead them to a career or allow them to transfer."

The degree to which community colleges might better equip American companies to compete in the modern global economy hasn't been lost on Washington. President Obama mentioned the role they can play several times in his first term as well as during the 2012 campaign. In 2009, he set aside $12 billion for community colleges and indicated his support for corporate partnerships that can get students ready for employment.

Should every job the BLS says is open be filled, the nation would still have a significant number of people who aren't working -- around 8.5 million using current federal data. Community colleges aren't a panacea, but they're a step in the right direction.