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Derrick Z. Jackson

A boost for community colleges

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / September 28, 2011

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MASSACHUSETTS’ 15 community colleges have a fresh opportunity to escape second-class citizenship in higher education. On Monday, the Obama administration announced it will give the schools $20 million to prepare technically skilled workers in medicine, high-tech and engineering.

The figure is part of $500 million federal grant program. Massachusetts’ share is among the highest in the nation. In a telephone interview, Jane Oates, the assistant secretary of labor for employment and training and a former senior policy adviser to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, said it was impressive that the state’s community colleges applied as a consortium, breaking old models of being “territorial and turf-centered.’’

She said that of all the applicants, Massachusetts was one of the few that “not only talked about training, but they also talked about beefing up achievement. So many times, with all the balancing of family and work that the typical community college student faces, it’s easy to settle for a C. But with the jobs that are out there, it’s not enough to be a C student, and this application recognized that. It makes it a very brave application. By talking achievement, they not only raised the bar for themselves, but they’ve raised the stakes for all community colleges.’’

The schools have raised the bar in another way, said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council. The consortium goes beyond the colleges and includes working directly with hospitals, green energy manufacturers, and sensor manufacturers to make sure that students are being trained in a way that truly closes the skills gap. “The critical piece to this,’’ Sullivan said, “is that we are not just training people for the jobs of today, but that we are also training them for the jobs of three to five years from now. That means there is not going to be one training solution. It means the colleges and the employers are in constant conversation because the job market is a moving target. If it works, that is the great potential of this.’’

In Boston, Presidents Terrence Gomes of Roxbury Community College and Mary Fifield of Bunker Hill Community College are already honing in on what they will do in the consortium. Gomes said his school is talking with biotech companies such as Genzyme, hospitals in the Partners HealthCare network, and information technology companies to “speed up’’ how his students can prepare.

Fifield says Bunker Hill will use its money from the consortium to work on things such as a pharmacy technician certificate program, a degree program for analyzing energy efficiency and sustainability, and working with companies like Raytheon for more internships for computer trouble-shooting. “We’ve looked at labor market data to look for jobs where there are very few programs that teach people the skills,’’ Fifield said.

If the community colleges can truly do that year in and year out, they will become the job engines that politicians often talk about but rarely fund to their fullest potential. Joanne Goldstein, the state’s secretary of labor and workforce development, said the federal seed money offers the chance to blend technical training with basic teaching such as second-language English. She said there is no other choice; positions requiring high-level technical skills will comprise nearly half of all jobs in Massachusetts by 2019.

“It’s going to be more about advanced manufacturing like precision instruments, computerized pieces, biotech, and things like sensors for scanners at airports and less about cars, lathes, tool, and die,’’ Goldstein said. “We think this grant is one of the pieces that will help people get full-time sustainable jobs.’’

The big question, of course, is whether the momentum created by this grant can be sustained, especially when education budgets are constantly being cut. There is much to be worked out in the consortium. Goldstein asked out loud, “Do we have every community college do one thing, do we regionalize things, or teach everything everywhere?’’ At least for now, it is amazing there even is such a question to ask. Community colleges have a chance to be an engine in Massachusetts instead of a caboose.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at jackson@globe.com.