4-year grads seek associate degrees

Unemployed college graduates are heading to community college, writes David Koeppel in Fortune. Instead of pursuing an expensive graduate degree that may not pay off, they’re seeking associate degrees in vocational fields.

Some of the returning students are recent graduates who have found that their sociology or philosophy major has not been enough to find gainful employment. They are now training for careers as nurses, IT specialists, or medical technicians.  Radiation therapists and registered nurses with associate’s degrees earn median salaries of $74,200 and $63,800 respectively, according to a 2009 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Many of these students have graduated fairly recently and the job market didn’t pan out the way they expected, says Felix Matos Rodriguez, the president of Hostos Community College in the Bronx. “Some say their initial choice of major was not the right one. For some folks that were laid off, it was a wake-up call.”

In California, 260,000 college graduates under 30 are working in food service, retail and clerical jobs that don’t require education, reports KEYT in Santa Barbara.

“We’re seeing graduates in humanities and some of the arts fields struggling,” said Ian Moats, staffing consultant at Express Employment Professionals.

“A bachelor’s degree used to be a golden ticket into getting a decent middle wage paying job where you could have the opportunity to prove yourself. We’re seeing that that’s not the case so much now due to the competition and the skills gap they’re not getting the opportunity to prove themselves in the job market and they’re resulting and taking lower wage jobs,” said Moats.

Jobs that require “good customer service, interaction, good communication . . .  are good preludes” to more responsible jobs, said Raymond McDonald of the Santa Barbara County Workforce Investment Board.


Academics or vocational skills?

Should public colleges focus on academics or vocational skills? The battle lines are drawn in Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick wants community colleges to be drivers of workforce and economic development, writes Melissa Goldberg on the Workforce Strategy Center blog. But Is it the right debate? she asks.

In the Boston Globe Magazine, Jon Marcus asks whether higher education’s purpose should be knowledge or vocation.”

(Bob) Britt had watched as friends and relatives went to college only because it was expected. “They were 18, and so they went,” he says. “And when they got out, there wasn’t anything for them.” So when Britt enrolled at North Shore Community College, it was for a new kind of program that is being closely watched by industry executives and policy makers alike. It’s a program connected to the real world of work that all but guarantees its students something universities and colleges are being pressed to provide in exchange for their spiraling costs, and at a time when employers complain they can’t find workers for high-tech jobs in a fast-changing economy: useful skills.

Britt’s two-year associate’s degree program in manufacturing technology is a collaboration between the college – which furnishes faculty for classroom work – and General Electric. GE needs highly trained machinists to replace the large number of employees nearing retirement at its River Works aircraft engine plant in Lynn, which has been chugging along while recovering from the 1980s recession. GE pays the students while they learn and covers the costs of their academic courses in advanced manufacturing. That’s a high-growth field, one in which Britt is virtually assured a job after graduation that pays an average of $62,400, with ample opportunity for advancement.

“It’s not a dead end,” Britt says.

Employers want workers with an academic foundation andworkplace skills, writes Goldberg. It’s not either or.  “Everyone will need some opportunity to gain practical experience through internships, apprenticeships, or perhaps working their way through college” whether they pursue a technical or liberal arts degree. The question is:  How do we enable young people to learn academic and workplace skills?

Here’s a sobering statistic: “For the first time in history, the number of jobless workers age 25 and up who have attended some college now exceeds the ranks of those who settled for a high school diploma or less,” reports Investors Business Daily.

Job training funds run low

Community colleges are running out of money to train laid-off workers, warns Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: Challenges Community Colleges Face to Reach the Unemployed from the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

Few states now offer free retraining at community colleges, say members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges

Unemployment, meanwhile, has remained stubbornly high, while stimulus funds have dwindled and state tax revenues have yet to bounce back. This year members from 21 states reported that funds for work-force training had been exhausted.

Nearly three-fourths of survey respondents agreed that in the face of such challenges, community colleges are being pushed to offer “quick” job training without academic credit. That limits colleges’ ability to invest in more expensive long-term programs, the report says, in fields like allied health, engineering, and information technology—the very fields that need more workers and tend to offer better pay. Forty-two members indicated that their states need more funds to expand programs in those areas.

Community colleges may have reached their limits, the report warns. “Right now, workforce training is an underfunded Band-Aid,” said Stephen G. Katsinas, the center’s director and a coauthor of the report.

Job training doesn’t create jobs

Job training doesn’t help much when there are no jobs, reports the New York Times. Quick-fix programs — a job-hunting workshop, a resume polish, quick training in office skills — were designed for a boom economy.  In a deep recession, even intensive programs can fail if predictions about the labor market don’t pan out.

“It’s such an ugly situation that job training can’t solve it,” said Ross Eisenbrey, a job training expert at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented research institution in Washington, and a former commissioner of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. “When you have five people unemployed for every vacancy, you can train all the people you want and unfortunately only one-fifth of the people will get hired. Training doesn’t create jobs.”

Training advocates say there are jobs in health care and technology for skilled workers. But community colleges and workforce development programs need to know what skills are in demand locally.

Two years after completing programs tied directly to the needs of local industries suffering shortages of skilled workers in the South Bronx, Boston and Milwaukee, graduates were earning 29 percent more than similar workers who did not receive training, according to a new survey from Public/Private Ventures, a research group that has advocated job-training programs for low-income communities.

Working with local employers, Minnesota’s Hennepin Tech offers intensive training in Swiss machining to help laid-off workers find jobs manufacturing medical devices. The college has placed 80 percent of its 250 WorkFast graduates in jobs.

David Gustafson was laid off from a job machining parts for medical device companies. When he applied for work, employers said they needed someone who could program the computers that run Swiss machines.

He signed up for WorkFast and found a job at a Swiss machine shop paying slightly more than he earned before the lay-off.

“Just as soon as I could say, ‘Yes, I can program,’ I got a job,” Mr. Gustafson said. “I feel real secure.”

However, Gustafson was an experienced machinist who needed one additional skill. It’s much harder to train low-skilled workers for high-demand jobs.

A 2006 study prepared for the Labor Department found virtually no benefit for 8,000 randomly selected recipients who entered federally financed training programs in 2001 and 2002.

In the year before their training, these people earned about $20,000 a year on average, according to the study. During the 15 months after their training, roughly 80 percent of these people were employed at some point, but their earnings in that period averaged about $16,000.

Women were far more likely to benefit from training than men. This recession has hurt men the hardest: 60 percent of the long-term unemployed are men. Nearly three of four long-term unemployed Americans did not earn a credential beyond a high school diploma.

Laid-off workers will benefit from training — eventually, writes Atlantic blogger Daniel Indiviglio. When employers start hiring again, the trained will have new skills to offer.  Trained workers will be more productive, which is good for the economy. But the recovery is going to take awhile.