Obama pushes job training initiatives to boost US manufacturing

There's a gap between skills US manufacturers want and skills workers have, Obama said during a visit to a hybrid-car repair lab Wednesday. Can job training at community colleges help close it?

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama visits the Northern Virginia Community College Alexandria, Va. Campus's Automotive Services classroom, on Wednesday, June 8, to highlight the need to prepare the workforce to compete for manufacturing jobs across the country.

Who’s going to build and maintain the high-tech cars of the future? As the skill base shifts for workers in American manufacturing, training needs to keep pace.

President Obama rolled up his sleeves Wednesday morning at a hybrid-car repair lab where students can earn gold-star credentials from the National Association of Manufacturing (NAM). He toured the automotive training program at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus before announcing an expansion of initiatives to boost the manufacturing workforce.

The new partnership between private-sector manufacturers, community colleges, and NAM aims to provide 500,000 community college students over the next five years with industry-recognized credentials.

“The irony is, even though a lot of folks are looking for work, there are a lot of companies that are actually also looking for skilled workers; there’s a mismatch that we can close,” Mr. Obama said, surrounded by auto parts and tools.

Through these partnerships, companies will know what training was included in particular degrees, Obama said, and if you’re a student, you will “know that the diploma you earn will be valuable when you get to the job market.”

That’s important, because currently “there is such a splintering of credentials – so many different models and vendors ... [so] by moving toward more of a national model, we’ll see a lot of economies of scale,” says Maria Flynn, vice president of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based national nonprofit that promotes credential attainment and career advancement for low-income Americans.

As community colleges and businesses move in this direction, she says, it will make it easier for, say, aerospace companies to recruit more employers and for dislocated workers to merge into new careers.

Obama also announced expanding mentoring for young people and a new multimedia project called “Discover Your Skills,” to raise awareness of job opportunities and the skills needed, particularly among the unemployed. Discovery Communications, which includes the Discovery television channel, will lend to the effort its on-air personalities and its connection with US schools.

Both new initiatives are coordinated by Skills for America’s Future, a business and community-college partnership based at the Aspen Institute in Washington and Colorado. Companies it already works with to link students with 21st-century job skills range from Accenture to UPS to Gap Inc.

Skills for America’s Future is funded by employers and foundations, not the government. But Congress set aside about $2 billion in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act to help community colleges train students and workers over the next four years.

The initiatives “will provide incentives to makes sure all occupational programs do have connections with employers,” which many currently do not, says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. But it’s important to keep a focus on increasing the number of graduates with associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, not just training certificates, he adds.

Obama quoted an NVCC student who said the automotive program at the college was “the spark he needed to get his career started.”

“There are people across America with talents just waiting to be tapped, sparks waiting to be lit,” he said. “Our job is to light them. There’s no time to lose when ... we know that we’ve got to rebuild a middle class, and a lot of that’s going to have to do with how well we do in manufacturing and how well we do in those jobs that are related to making products here in the United States of America.”

While such partnerships are welcome news for community colleges, it comes at a time when they are feeling the squeeze of the economic downturn. The California Community College system, for instance, sustained $1 billion in cuts over the past three years. The largest cut was $520 million in 2009-10, which was 8 percent of its overall budget. Officials there estimate that 140,000 students were turned away in 2009-10 because of reduced course availability.

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