Community College Plan in Chicago Stresses Job Skills

Community colleges will work closely with companies to prepare students for the workforce.

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Chicago's city colleges will turn a community college diploma into a "ticket to the workforce," pledged Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a recent speech to business leaders.

Despite 10 percent unemployment, the Chicago area has more than 10,000 unfilled jobs, he wrote in a Wall Street Journal commentary. "Like the rest of the country, Chicago suffers from a skills gap that undermines our economic competitiveness and threatens our future prosperity."

Under the mayor's College to Careers plan, the city's community colleges will work closely with employers to train students for jobs.

[Learn about scholarships for community college students.]

AAR, an aircraft leasing company that needs aviation mechanics, will help design curriculum at Olive-Harvey College, provide instructors who've worked in the industry and offer internships, facility tours, and job interviews.

Malcolm X College will work with nearby hospitals and healthcare companies to train students as healthcare assistants, technicians, and nurses.

[See why healthcare jobs are on the rise.]

Computer technology, business services, and hospitality partnerships are expected to be next.

"We're going to convert the community college system to a skills-based education," Emanuel told CBS News.

That rhetoric alarms defenders of the community colleges' educational mission.

Emanuel's focus on degrees with "economic value" is too narrow, wrote Walt Gardner, a retired teacher and lecturer in the University of California—Los Angeles Graduate School of Education, in Education Week.

Community colleges "provide the general education that is considered a prerequisite for personal growth and participation in a free society," Gardner argued.

Workforce development isn't the only role of community colleges, responds Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. "The idea that some people get to go to a 'real college' and receive an education that will prepare them to be leaders, while others must go to community college, acquire 'job training,' and prepare to become the 'workforce,' strikes me as somehow anti-democratic," Jenkins argues.

Many young students have no clue what they want to do, he adds. Some will find a career path while others will go on to earn a bachelor's, master's, or even a doctoral degree. Preparing students for higher education is "a primary role of community colleges" that has been lost in the zeal for job training, Jenkins notes.

Community colleges must balance dual missions—job training and educating students for transfer to universities—says Michelle Van Noy, a researcher at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. "Funding pressures have intensified the tension."

[Get more information about transferring from community college.]

High unemployment rates also have focused political leaders on job training.

In his call for "skills-based education," Emanuel is following the lead of his former boss, President Obama. "The idea is simple," President Obama said at the Oct. 5, 2010, White House Community College Summit. "Businesses and community colleges work together to match the work in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom."

[Read more about President Obama touting community college benefits.]

Community colleges nationwide have collaborated with employers on workforce training for many years, says Van Noy. "Ideally, the faculty and administrators have deep ties to industry and industry partners provide input on curriculum in an ongoing dialogue."

Community colleges in Washington state and North Carolina have taken the lead in effective job training, says Davis Jenkins, senior researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. But some large states such as California, Texas, and Florida remain focused on the transfer mission.

Until now, Chicago city colleges also have stressed transfers, says Jenkins. Career-oriented students turned to private colleges or suburban community colleges for training. College to Careers is "a big thing and a new thing for Chicago," he says.