When Winston Bender graduates next year from Northern Virginia Community College with an associate’s degree in automotive technology, he knows he’ll have a job waiting. Standing next to him is proof — Kul “Jimmy” Heo, a recent graduate who had no problems getting a paycheck.
“I am the proof!” he says, smiling broadly.
But across the country, far too few Americans feel so confident in the job market — after all, unemployment rose to 9.1 percent in May — and many are looking to the White House for answers. So, on Wednesday, after touring the engine labs where Bender and his classmates are practicing their trade, President Barack Obama introduced a $2 billion private-public partnership that aims to train 500,000 community-college students over the next five years for jobs in manufacturing fields.
“Lighting a spark — that’s what community colleges can do… and that’s the reason that I’m here today,” Obama said. “We’ve got to light more sparks all across America, and that’s going to make a difference in the futures of individuals who are looking for a better life, but it’s also going to make a difference in America’s future.”
Specifically, the investment, which is part of the White House’s Skills for America’s Future program, includes:
* Helping 200 community colleges across the country to adopt curriculum that would match industry-recognized certification programs.
* Preparing high-school students at 3,500 high schools across the country get early training in manufacturing careers.
* Helping 30,000 at-risk students specifically to get certificates in high-demand career areas.
That community colleges should be part of the solution to the country’s financial troubles is no surprise. There is no one factor more important in a community’s economic health than the very existence of a community college, said NEA economist Richard Sims. Not only does it provide jobs to the people who work there, but a community college also provides a pathway to the middle class for its students — and at a great discount.
For Bender and his classmates, the automotive program works like this: they spend eight weeks in the college’s labs, followed by eight weeks in the real-world at a local GM dealership, and then back and forth, again and again for 18 months. “The really great thing about this program is the experience in the field,” he said. Plus, tuition isn’t unreasonable — especially compared to a nearby private, for-profit college, which charges exponentially more, doesn’t provide a degree, and doesn’t have in-field experience, he said.
“There’s a big difference between touching ‘school cars’ and touching ‘client cars’ — a very big difference!” said Heo.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Obama rolled up his own sleeves and joked, “I was getting under the hood myself. Do you want me to work on your cars? Don’t do it!” But he was serious about investing in education and job creation. “We’ve got to be ruthless in evaluating what works and what doesn’t in order for folks to actually obtain a job…” he said. “That’s how we’re going to help more Americans climb into the middle class and stay there. That’s how we’re going to make our overall economy stronger and more competitive.”
By the end of the decade, the Unites States should lead the world in the number of its college graduates, Obama said — and those diplomas should be meaningful. “I see a United States where this nation is able to out-compete every country on Earth, where we continue to be the world’s engine for innovation and discovery.”