Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Colleges working on own economic stimulus

As Congress works out the details of its economic pick-us-up, community colleges are figuring out how to provide a stimulus of their own.

Enrollment is soaring as tens of thousands of unemployed California workers return to school, and the two-year colleges are renewing efforts to train a relevant work force. But they're trying to do it with the same meager funding that has come to characterize the poor segment of California higher education.

The state pays for only a set number of students, a system that hurts the schools in tough economic times, when enrollment typically rises. At a time when the colleges need to train more workers, they're forced to turn away students who simply don't fit into the packed classrooms.

"That's really one of the sad stories," said Jose Millan, the state's community college vice chancellor, who handles work force development. "Our enrollment is up 10 (percent), 15 percent, and we only get paid for a certain number of students. The colleges cannot do this without being reimbursed."

Students are crowding the 21st-century classes that have been touted as solutions to the country's recession. About 20 of California's 110 community colleges train students to install solar panels, including a new program at Oakland's Laney College. Ninety students there showed up for a course that had not even made it into the printed schedule.

Although some have criticized community colleges for reacting slowly to Advertisementeconomic changes, they start new courses much more quickly than their four-year counterparts.

"What impresses me about community colleges is an ability to turn on a dime," said William Hanson, the Laney College dean of community partnerships and work force development. "We are the first responders."

Rarely has a response of this magnitude been necessary. California's unemployment rate in December was 9.3 percent, its highest in 15 years, and many of the jobless are finding their skills no longer fit the shrinking job market.

Frank Zelenka, who was laid off from his $80,000-a-year management job in Texas in 2003, has not found steady work since. The 40-year-old Martinez resident, whose lack of a college education has hurt his prospects, has started taking classes at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, including a career-counseling course.

"Just so I can figure out where Frank Zelenka fits in this new economy," said the single father of three, who would like to teach elementary school. "I felt that I had skills and talent that were going unused. There's a job out there for me somewhere."

In recent years, colleges and businesses have been criticized for not working well together.

Community colleges often did not know local manufacturers needed trained machinists, for example, and cut back on those classes. At the same time, companies failed to provide instructors and equipment for expensive training programs that were struggling to survive.

The deepening economic problems have opened eyes on both sides, said Bob Lanter, executive director of the Contra Costa County Workforce Development Board, which works with community colleges to train workers for East Bay companies and public agencies.

"I think we have come to realize we can't do it alone," he said. "The economic crisis and the budget crisis in California, in some warped way, is going to help us get there."

Aside from the solar-installation classes, colleges around the state are beefing up courses on energy management, biotechnology and other cutting-edge technology that could land graduates high-paying jobs after just a year or two of school.

To attract out-of-work residents whose jobless benefits last only a year, some schools are using streamlined programs that quickly put students back into the work force. And more colleges are combining vocational courses with math and English classes, which teach basic skills that pertain to a given industry.

But the economy could stymie some of these initiatives. With state and federal money scarce, some educators are worried they will start losing grants that schools have come to rely on.

Without money, "we hit a point where we cannot serve our students," said Vicki Morrow, president of Skyline College in San Bruno. The school recently received a $1.9 million federal grant to train "green" technology workers.

"When we do hit that wall, it's heartbreaking."

With the federal stimulus package making its way through Congress, colleges want to train students to work the infrastructure jobs the legislation will create, said Hanson, the Laney College dean. The school is particularly concerned about at-risk people who may not have considered attending college, he said.

"What we want to make sure is that the underserved community is trained to compete for those jobs," Hanson said.

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