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President Obama proposes $8 Billion for Community college Training

TACC President Says Focus will be on Creating High-Wages / High-Skills Workforce

AUSTIN, Texas: Welding could be one of the high-wage/high-skills training programs community colleges will offer under the President’s proposal.

Details are sparse, but the dollars are plentiful in President Barack Obama’s budget proposal to distribute $8 billion in training funds to the nation’s community colleges. It’s certainly garnered the attention of community college officials in Texas, according to Dr. Rey Garcia, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges (TACC).

U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan said Obama’s proposed Community College to Career Fund is part of the President’s strategy to “educate our way to a better economy.”

While community college officials are wide-eyed about the possibility of increased funding, Garcia said if it is approved, it will probably take at least a year for the money to trickle down to community colleges nationwide. And the impact the funding would have? “It’s way too soon to know that,” he said. “We don’t even know if it’s going to be a national competitive process or if the funds will be given to the states to let them distribute the dollars to the institutions.”

Federal programs aimed at workforce training focus on high-wage/high-skills jobs, said Garcia, from emerging and growing industries such as high-tech to allied health jobs. But in rural areas, even welding is a high skills occupation, particularly in areas like oil field process technology.

While administrative and legislative details have not been laid out yet, Garcia said community colleges are well aware that the proposal “will require congressional action.” And that’s never a given, particularly during a campaign season.

Garcia offered an educated guess about who would administer the funds. “If they run it through the Department of Labor, the local funds would likely go through the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC),” he said, “although some might align with one of the governor’s initiatives.”

The TACC executive said from what he’s heard of the program so far, it sounds a lot like the Skills Development Fund money distributed by the TWC. Some of those funds help community colleges provide training to create a match between local businesses and the colleges to train or attract new employees to fill local industry jobs. Newspapers across the state often feature photos of state officials handing off oversized checks to community college officials for such training. With $8 billion at stake, Garcia said those checks “would be a lot bigger.” Garcia added that the Comptroller’s Jobs and Education for Texans (JET) program is another Texas-based program similar to the White House proposal.

However, he also notes that the $8 billion “isn’t all for us,” saying community colleges would get the biggest piece of the pie, but some of the funds also would be used for entrepreneurship training, performance incentives and for state and local partnerships.

One key need of community colleges that continues to grow as quickly as their student enrollment is funding for infrastructure – and that often means bricks and mortar. Garcia said it’s not clear yet whether any of the funds could be used for new construction, nor is it known to what extent any of the funds might be used to retrofit a building to coincide with the special needs for certain training.

This latest push for community colleges to take on a bigger role in ensuring an educated, skilled workforce, said Garcia, follows an earlier focus on that role that arose during the Bush administration. It was a “fairly small” community college training grant program then, he said, “that broke the ice.” Two years ago, there was an even bigger push for training, in part because of the Trade Adjustment Act that addresses the needs of workers who are unemployed because of the impact of international trade. Since then, said the TACC executive, the role of community colleges in training workers “has grown in prominence.”

This latest push for training workers is related to the nation’s economy, said Garcia. “As the workforce ages and the needs of employers change, they need an entity to help modify the skills of the workforce.” That entity is the community college.

Garcia said he is more hopeful that this attempt to provide funds to community colleges to carry out their training mission will be approved by Congress. But Congressional bickering has been prominent of late. However, Garcia notes that everyone is talking about jobs – Democrats and Republicans. “Businesses say they can’t hire because they can’t fill the positions with skilled workers. There’s fairly significant bipartisan acceptance that this country needs to invest in jobs.” The administration is hopeful such an investment in community colleges will help the nation’s economic recovery.

The goals are lofty. The President seeks a return of investment on the $8 billion as the successful training of 2 million workers for high-paying jobs in high-demand industries.


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