Bridging the Skills Gap: Free Community College in Perspective

2015/01/img_5252-0.jpgby Matthew C. Sapp

During his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama further detailed the initiative he had announced on January 9th that would provide two years of free community college for students maintaining a C+ average. With the cost of attending college having increased by nearly 80% over the last 10 years, it’s not surprising that this plan has already gained plenty of support. If enacted, I’m sure that many students will take advantage of this program and use their two years of community college as a springboard to continue their education. Approximately one in five community college graduates transfers to a four-year university, but this rate could increase with the availability of free tuition under President Obama’s plan.

While the merits of a bachelor’s degree have been discussed and debated ad nauseam in recent decades, the free community college idea provides the perfect backdrop to discuss the numerous career opportunities available for people with an associates degree or similar trade school education. Welding, plumbing, electrical engineering and accounting are but a few career fields that one can enter with only a two-year degree. Graduate of these programs could then gain valuable work experience while having the option to continue their education by pursuing a four-year degree. Most importantly, they would be able to see if the career field is a good fit before spending time (and money) advancing their education.

Atlanta, like the rest of the country, is currently facing a shortage of vocational workers. It is estimated that there is only one new person entering the skilled trade professions for every four that leave. Combined with the fact that approximately 70% of skilled trade workers are over 45, this could lead to a serious skill deficit in the coming years. Go Build Georgia, a campaign designed to promote skilled trade education in Georgia, highlights many of the opportunities available for professionals in such fields as pipe-fitting, plumbing, boiler-making and welding. According to their research, there are over 80,000 trade job openings in Georgia every year. For a state with an unemployment rate of around 6.9%, you would think that these positions are quickly filled but sadly this is not the case. A common complaint among employers in the trade fields is that there are no qualified applicants for these vacant jobs.

The economic makeup of Georgia is evolving as industries continue to expand into the state. With this expansion will come even more trade job opportunities. A recent Economist article pointed out the difficulty that film productions operating in Georgia have had in finding workers trained to run wires, build sets and perform all of the other necessary behind-the-scenes work. Georgia offers many incentives for production companies and, with the success of television shows like The Walking Dead, it is foreseeable that there will be a steady increase in the number of television shows, films and commercials shot in the state. This will provide a veritable gold-mine of jobs for people qualified to perform the work.

According to President Obama’s plan, 75% of the funding for the free community college program will come from the federal government. The remaining 25% will come from the state. Funding is a polarizing issue since it forces people to weigh the benefits of providing a free education to students versus the cost in the form of increased taxes or the reallocation of existing funds from other social programs. This is a perfect opportunity for the federal and state governments to reach out to the trade industry and form a partnership of sorts, one aimed at the revitalization of the American skilled labor force. In exchange for helping to fund community college and trade school education, businesses could take advantage of free labor in the form of work-study programs and tax incentives from the federal and state governments.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all will be changing the public’s opinion of the skilled trades. For as long as I can remember, I have been encouraged to pursue a four-year degree from a prestigious university. Parents, teachers, relatives, guidance counselors, movies and soft drink commercials have all conspired to see to it that I add a B.A., M.S., J.D. or Ph.D. to the end of my name. A vocational education was seen as a less-desirable consolation prize. I see a direct correlation between this shift in attitude towards the skilled trades and the gradual exportation of manufacturing jobs over the past few decades. We began seeing blue-collar jobs as beneath ourselves and only fit for the cheap labor set in third world countries. This attitude, initially directed towards assembly line and construction workers, would spread to more specialized jobs like auto mechanics and electricians. In truth, there is no shame in working a skilled trade, and the pay can be better than that of many college professors.

President Obama’s proposal to fund two years of community college is more than just a way to lessen the cost of an education. It is an opportunity to steer people toward good careers in fields that are actually in demand. However, simply offering vocational classes on the cheap is not enough. A campaign must be waged to change the public’s opinion of blue-collar work. Skilled trade jobs provide valuable services to our society and can support a solid middle-class lifestyle. More importantly, these jobs are not hypothetical. They already exist and are just sitting vacant; waiting for the right people to come along.

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Data, Government

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