Colleges and universities are beginning to weigh their role in the job-training revolution sweeping American industry. With the national unemployment rate still a relatively high 8.4 percent (down from 10.4 percent, the highest level since World War II), many find themselves out of work, while new jobs requiring more sophisticated skills are opening. Thus the pressure on colleges to make vocational-training resources more readily available has increased.
Higher education has traditionally remained above the fray when the economic forces of supply and demand have done battle. But the latest recession has colleges trying to balance long-held notions about liberal education with economic and social necessity.
Pressure for more training and retraining of workers is being applied by those in private industry who claim they aren't getting the trained people they need. Pressure is also being applied - with private industry's prodding - by state governments.
The public, too, is urging a more active role on colleges and universities. A recent study conducted by Group Attitudes Corporation for 11 higher education associations indicates Americans would like to see colleges and universities become actively involved in retraining workers for new jobs.
Over 91 percent of Americans surveyed said they think it is important or very important that institutions of higher learning directly assist in retraining workers for occupational skills that will be in demand by industry.
Much of the pressure on colleges and universities to move to increased job training can be traced to demographic factors. The most obvious factor is the decline in the number of 18-year-olds that are expected to enter college through this decade and into the next. Many of the costs associated with running a college remain static when enrollment dips. So older, ''nontraditonal'' students must be recruited to keep enrollment at established levels. Many of these older students (and many of the 18-year olds as well) are demanding courses that teach specific skills that will further their careers or allow them to move across career fields.
Evidence of this demand is a 13.4 percent increase in full-time enrollment at proprietary (business and technical) schools this fall, as opposed to the generally unchanged college enrollment nationwide.The increase for proprietary schools would seem to indicate growing emphasis on job training and career change.
An additional spur is the private sector's active role in training. Businesses are looking to schools to provide qualified people. Not finding them, they are doing their own training. By some estimates, business spends up to $60 billion a year on job training, which equals the amount spent by all of higher education.
Academe is casting a wary eye at private-sector training, with its shiny new equipment and promise of jobs. In a recent speech, Gordon Haaland, interim president of the University of New Hampshire, said, ''There is some indication that universities and the private sector may well evolve into direct rivals or even protagonists.''
On the other hand, for some colleges, job training is not so much an obligation as an opportunity. For colleges looking for new ways to ''market'' their schools, job training provides a ready source of eager and willing students. This has been proven by community colleges, which have long had success with job-training programs.
Ingrained academic tradition has so far prevented the job-training phenomenon from taking root at most private colleges. Still, concern about a massive defection to career training has some educators worried.
In a speech a few months ago, Education Secretary Terrel Bell argued against allowing liberal arts education to fall victim to the pressure for job-specific training in an age of high technology:
''I fear we are drifting from the liberal arts under the pressure of our graduate and professional schools for even earlier entry into job specialization ,'' Mr. Bell said.
Community colleges are taking a leading role in current efforts to upgrade the quality and volume of job training.
A recent survey revealed that two-thirds of the 500 community colleges responding were taking an active part in the new programs that will arise from passage of the Job Training Partnership Act, a new federal job-training program designed to replace the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).
Aside from federal projects, many other job-training programs have been established at community colleges around the nation in cooperation with business.
General Motors Corporation has contracts with about 45 community colleges to retrain service technicians for its automobile dealers. The Community College of Allegheny County (in Pennsylvania) accepted 4,000 unemployed workers this September as part of a $1 million job-training program.
With community colleges already involved in job training and private colleges maintaining their traditional posture, much of the new movement on the job-training front will likely come at large public institutions.
But they have their own special problems. Tight regulation has tended to bind state universities in a knot of red tape, limiting their ability to respond quickly to new opportunities like job training. It appears likely that business will have to outline its needs to the states, with the colleges responding in turn to dictates of the states.
Nevertheless, a number of public universities have already begun job-training programs.
The State University of New York at Buffalo has teamed up with the United Steelworkers of America to provide free noncredit business, math, and computer courses for 2,300 unemployed steelworkers who live in the area and qualify. The University of Missouri-Kansas City has established Project Refocus, a communitywide program for the unemployed that combines job counseling and training.