Governor's State of State address focuses on community colleges and their role in addessing middle-skill gap

Governor Patrick proposed sweeping changes to the Commonwealth’s community college system in his State of the State address tonight, focusing on the role the colleges can play in helping the Commonwealth address its middle-skill gap, which we discussed in the Massachusetts’ Forgotten Middle Skill Jobs report in 2010 and accompanying Skills2Compete Massachusetts Platform.

We are thrilled to see the Governor focusing on middle-skill jobs and how community colleges play a particularly important role in preparing the Commonwealth’s residents for these jobs.  Although the changes proposed in governance will doubtless be difficult, they will go a long way toward helping more students and working people attain a post-secondary certificate or degree with meaning in the labor market.

Specifically, the governor outlined the following vision in his remark:

  • Community colleges become “a fully integrated part of the state’s workforce development plan…aligned with employers, voc-tech schools and Workforce Investment Boards in the regions where they operate”;
  • Community Colleges are “aligned with each other in core course offerings”;
  • Community Colleges are “aligned with the Commonwealth’s job growth strategy.”

The Governor plans to move toward this vision with a more aligned system, proposing  “a unified community college system in Massachusetts” which would streamline the funding and governance of community colleges under the Board of Higher Education and increase overall funding by $10 million.  He also proposed to channel more state workforce training dollars through the community colleges.

As for channeling more training dollars through community colleges, we would only say that we’d like to see these decisions made on the basis of performance–program completion and job placement rates.

Overall, however, the Governor really honed in what we can do better to get people back to work and help employers find the skilled workers they need to compete.  The Governor touched on several model programs in his remarks–including the Academy of Health Professions at Middlesex Community College–where innovative approaches to partnering with employers, instruction, registration, financial aid and student support have led to greater success for students and businesses.

These are the types of programs our coalition has been advocating for through the Middle Skills Solutions Act (SB921/HB2713), which would provide much of the regional infrastructure and coordination to support the vision and system-wide alignment the Governor proposed tonight.

We look forward to working with the Governor and the legislature as these proposals move forward in the budget process.

As Sue Parsons of the Workforce Solutions Group so eloquently put it, “Community colleges play a critically important role in helping Massachusetts develop a workforce that is second-to-none.  We support measures that align our state’s community college system with employers’ needs for training and mid-level skills development. A highly skilled, well educated workforce is our state’s most important competitive advantage, which enables Massachusetts to compete effectively in the global economy.”

An excerpt from Governor Patrick’s speech:

There are 240,000 people still looking for work in Massachusetts – and nearly 120,000 job openings. Why? How can we have so much opportunity available and so many people still looking for their chance? Business leaders tell me over and over again that it is because the people looking for jobs don’t have the skills required. Many of these openings are for so called “middle skills” jobs that require more than a high school diploma but not necessarily a four-year degree: jobs in medical device manufacturing or as lab technicians or solar installers, for example. And a lot of those forced by this economic downturn to make career changes, people in their thirties or forties or fifties, don’t have the proper training for those jobs. We have a “skills gap.”

We can do something about that. We can help people get back to work. And our community colleges should be at the very center of it.

We have fifteen public community colleges across Massachusetts. Each strives to meet a whole array of needs: preparing high school graduates for four-year college; training workers for new careers; helping newcomers master the English language; enabling people to scratch an intellectual itch. They give a chance to people who often times have few. For the work they do, community colleges rarely receive proper recognition, let alone adequate funding. I have visited their campuses and seen their good work. They are an important resource, and we must ask more of them.

I believe community colleges are uniquely positioned to help close our skills gap and get people back to work.

Some are already making impressive contributions to workforce development. Middlesex Community College for example runs an Academy of Health Professions in Bedford and Lowell tied to industry growth in Merrimack Valley. Springfield Technical Community College is an indispensable source of trained workers for precision manufacturing companies in Western Massachusetts. Bunker Hill Community College just this month launched a pilot co-op program that gives students a combination of classroom learning and on-the-job training at some of our largest employers.

We need that kind of sharper mission across the Commonwealth, so that community colleges become a fully integrated part of the state’s workforce development plan. They must be aligned with employers, voc-tech schools and Workforce Investment Boards in the regions where they operate; aligned with each other in core course offerings; and aligned with the Commonwealth’s job growth strategy. We can’t do that if 15 different campuses have 15 different strategies. We need to do this together. We need a unified community college system in Massachusetts.

In a unified system, students would find courses specifically tailored to meet local workforce needs alongside a core curriculum that emphasizes STEM subjects and with credits that are easily transferable to another community college or a four-year college. In a unified system, we could create “learn and earn” programs across the entire state enabling students to get practical workplace experience while completing course work. In a unified system, students would earn a certificate of workplace readiness that would open doors in their chosen field anywhere in the state. And as they near course completion, one-stop career centers right on campus would help them move into, or back into, the workplace.

To support this mission, I will propose in my budget to streamline the funding and governance of community colleges, and to increase overall funding by $10 million. I challenge the business community to match that new funding with an additional $10 million. I also propose to channel more state workforce training dollars through the community colleges. With this sharper focus, simpler structure, increased funding and greater accountability, community colleges can help us better prepare people for the middle skills jobs of today and tomorrow.

Now, for some, this will be another tough vote, another challenging reform.

But consider what it would mean if those 120,000 open positions were filled. It would mean the Commonwealth’s unemployment rate would be cut in half, to its lowest in a decade. It would mean 120,000 people would go from being unemployed, at a cost to the state of $800 million, to being earners, contributing more than $500 million in new tax revenue, a revenue that we can invest in further growth. And most important of all it would offer a way forward to those who are wondering tonight whether there is a place for them in tomorrow’s economy.

Read the full text of the Governor’s address.

Read the Governor’s press release.

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