This past week, we watched two terrific speeches delivered by two excellent leaders.
On Monday, Deval Patrick delivered the State of the Commonwealth address. On Tuesday, Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union.
In both speeches, these men outlined their vision for moving the state and the country forward over the next several years. I was struck by one common theme in each speech: Both emphasized the importance of community colleges in satisfying our workforce needs. This is a critical issue for everyone in Massachusetts, because it speaks directly to providing people opportunity — opportunity for a higher wage, good work, and a better life.
Governor Patrick described in his speech how there were 240,000 people out of work in the Commonwealth, yet 120,000 job openings. How can this be? he asked. It’s because applicants do not have the skills necessary for the jobs. Many of the jobs are “middle skills” jobs, jobs that require more than a high school diploma but not necessarily a four-year degree. As the governor pointed out, these are good jobs, jobs in medical device manufacturing, or as lab technicians, or as solar installers, for example.
President Obama similarly described how community colleges are connecting out-of-work individuals with high paying jobs all over the country. He went on to say we need to give more community colleges the resources they need to “become community career centers, places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.”
Partnerships like this exist in Massachusetts already. As the governor pointed out, Middlesex Community College, for example, runs an Academy of Health Professions in Bedford and Lowell. Springfield Technical Community College provides workers for precision manufacturing companies. Bunker Hill Community College just launched a pilot co-op program that gives students a combination of classroom learning and on-the-job training.
In addition, late last year, the community colleges received a $20 million federal grant for a proposal they submitted that will design programs on strategic economic development within Massachusetts. These programs will focus on training for jobs in life sciences and biotechnology, information technology, health care, clean energy, advanced manufacturing, and financial services and entrepreneurship.
We need to make sure our community colleges provide training for these job skills, but also design their programs to be “stackable,” that is, to allow people to later use those credits at a four-year institution in order to get a bachelor’s degree. That means that as part of these job training programs, community colleges need to include core academic offerings.
These programs are what give people opportunity. Many of the people who attend community colleges are the first generation in their family to attend college. There is extraordinary growth potential in these programs. As Governor Patrick pointed out, filling those 120,000 job openings would cut our unemployment rate in half.
I was heartened to see that Governor Patrick’s budget released Wednesday called for a $10 million increase in overall funding to the community colleges. In a very difficult budget season, this is one of the wisest investments we can make. In his speech Monday, he also called for more workforce development funds to go through the community colleges, and he called on community colleges to develop more workplace development programs of study for their local economies.
As we move forward, I will continue to be a supporter of our higher education system, particularly the key role our community colleges have in giving people opportunity in better careers and strengthening our workforce and economy.
State Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland, is chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.