THE BLOG

Community Colleges and the Skills Gap

02/24/2015 12:54 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

With a four year, residential college costing more than $80,000, parents and students are looking more closely at the return on investment.

President Obama recently spoke at Ivy Tech in Indiana, the nation's largest singly accredited community college system in the country, about his proposal to make a community college education free for most students.

The President also addressed the importance of colleges having an alliance with local businesses to train their workers, particularly through apprenticeship programs and career education in fields that pay well, such as construction and technology. People may disagree about politics, but there is little dispute that the U.S. needs a better-educated workforce in order to succeed.

The first thing we need to do is address the skills gap in this country. Baby boomers are retiring and businesses are looking for workers who are trained in emerging technologies.This is a national trend.

According to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, employers will have to replace an estimated 667,000 workers by 2022, and an additional 336,600 new jobs are projected for the same time frame.

In August of 2013, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) released a study, "The U.S. Skills Gap: Could it Threaten a Manufacturing Renaissance." The report estimated that the present high-skills gap in the U.S. is currently 100,000 workers nationwide. The solution has often been to ship these well-paying jobs overseas.

Community colleges are ideally positioned with solutions for the skills gap. These schools can move quickly to establish curricula that precisely address local workforce development needs. Adjunct faculty are often also employed by local businesses, so they know exactly what skills employees need to get a job and advance through the ranks. Increasingly, community colleges are looking to create apprenticeships with local businesses so students can earn while they learn.

For students, there is also the option of enrolling in a certificate program. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce pointed out in a 2012 study that certificates are the fastest growing form of post-secondary credentials in the U.S. largely because they are affordable, take less than a year to complete and often yield high returns.

As the former CEO of Delco Remy International, a manufacturing company, I am acutely aware of the problems manufacturers face in hiring highly skilled workers. Our factories are run by the new "blue tech" workers, individuals with good math skills who can work with automated systems. Manufacturers now run quiet, smaller factories -- a marked difference from the noisy, dirty assembly lines of the past. An entry-level position in one of these factories can pay as much as $50,000 a year.

At Ivy Tech, we created the Corporate College to provide workforce training solutions for the needs of businesses, organizations and individuals. We developed a partnership with Aisin USA Manufacturing to address the shortage of automation and robotics technicians. We worked with Barry Plastics Corporation with an apprenticeship program that trains more than 100 employees. Displaced and underemployed workers are trained by Carter Express Incorporated and Ivy Tech, representing a $4 million positive economic impact on the local community.

President Obama's proposal for a free community college education would work wonders for many people. But it's important to remember that even today, community colleges are very affordable resource. A two-year degree costs around $6,300 about a third of what it would run at a state-run four-year institution. In fact, community college tuition right now can be free for lower income students who qualify for Pell grants. But these students often struggle to pay for books, childcare and even gas in order to get a degree.

The President pointed out in his Ivy Tech speech that young people today may have three or four careers in their lifetime, and employers want them ready to produce from the get go. We can no longer rely on the luxury of on-the-job training. Employers expect that those they hire are thoroughly prepared, whether they be a RN or a welder. Community colleges get those employees ready to do their jobs.

Community colleges are now America's best hope for both lower and middle class Americans looking for an affordable education that leads to a well-paying job. Whatever we can do to increase access for more people will pay off for all of us in the end.