Community Colleges: Today's Best Source for Job Training?

Academics still matter, but technical knowledge may matter more.
November 2009
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

When I was a kid in the 1960s and 70s, I was an anomaly on my block: Both my parents had gone to college. They both had managed to make it through small liberal arts universities during the Great Depression, when something like 6 percent of all Americans had college degrees. Most of my friends had one parent, at most, who went to college. In many cases, no one in the family had ever made it past high school.

The funny thing was that even though our family was more highly educated than most in our little factory town, we weren't better off. My father sold cars and my mother worked part-time at a nursery school. The unionized shop workers whose families I knew generally made more money, had better benefits and enjoyed more job security than my parents did. That's because in those days--the height of America's industrial era--the path to economic security did not lead to college. It led to unionized factory jobs.

All that went out the window when the plants shut down, not only in my hometown but all over the country. The semi-skilled factory job was no longer a path to the future; it was a road to nowhere. Many in my generation heard--and took to heart--the ubiquitous phrase, "To get a good job, get a good education." To us, that meant one thing: Get a four-year academic degree and get away from the factory.

But what is a good education? And what kind of good education will lead to a good job? Forty years after my generation grappled with it, this question is being revisited--especially with President Obama's emphasis on strengthening community colleges. And the answer appears to be this: Academic learning still matters, but it's not enough. To get a good job, a lot of people need a good technical education as well. They need to have practical, problem-solving knowledge that they can put to use in the real world.

There are still factory jobs around--10 percent of all American jobs are in manufacturing--but factory workers today are highly skilled employees who work in a fast-paced environment where they have to be able to think on their feet. The same is true in what might be considered the factories of the service economy--hospitals, for example, where nurses and their aides must make decisions in real time that could have life-or-death results.

Even America's innovation factories--the research institutions that generate new products--require highly skilled personnel with technical training, not just the research superstars that everybody's always talking about. For example, at Amgen, the largest biotech company in the world and also the largest private employer in the county where I now live, it takes many skilled lab technicians to support each superstar researcher.

These are the kinds of good-paying jobs that the American economy is growing fast. Meanwhile, conventional white-collar jobs, such as clerical, accounting, even legal--the "good jobs" that the old slogan referred to--are going overseas.

In other words, the path to economic security no longer leads to college--at least not the traditional four-year college that was supposed to deliver you to a white-collar job. The path to economic security, especially for the working class and children of immigrants, leads to a community college, where you can get a combination of academic education and technical training--life skills and jobs skills.

Yet the academic education that produces white-collar workers remains highly valued, while the technical education that offers people the knowledge and skills to take the new jobs is still looked down upon. Major state universities get lots of money; community colleges, which provide most of the technical training, don't. This may be a vestige of the 1970s, or it may simply be the result of the fact that virtually all people involved in higher education themselves are products of the white-collar, four-year-degree factories.

Obama's emphasis on community colleges is welcome, but money remains an issue. Given the struggles that states have today, it's hard to imagine how they can give priority to both major research universities and community colleges. Increasingly, big employers, frustrated that the public education system can't deliver the workers they need, actually are funding technical education through community colleges. Bluegrass Community College, for example, has a campus on the grounds of Toyota's big assembly plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. As a technical training center, it looks a lot more like a factory floor than it does a conventional classroom.

The future of education will probably look more like Toyota's idea of a classroom than a state university's idea. Or at least it ought to--if American educators follow the economy and focus on technical education as well as academic learning.