With the economy swelling unemployment lines, community colleges across the country are bracing for a wave of displaced workers looking to train for new careers. And college officials are trying to predict which jobs — such as green technologies — will be most in demand in the post-recession landscape.
"This is a big recession, and that means there’s going to be a big increase in enrollment," said Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement in Austin, Texas.
St. Charles Community College in Missouri, serving a county hurt by a precipitous decline in construction, already has an inkling of what lies ahead: a two-percent increase in enrollment this semester among young male students. In contrast, the college’s total enrollment was little changed.
"What we’re seeing is that more young men out of high school, who last year might have gone to work [in the construction trade] instead of college, are seeing that there aren’t any jobs and [are] going to college," said school President John McGuire.
In Illinois, the Community College Board reports a 3-percent increase in overall spring semester enrollment compared to last year.
Community colleges are unsure how much of a bump in enrollment to expect. But following mass layoffs late last year and into this year, they know it’s coming.
Consequently, they are gearing up their retraining and workforce-development programs for the displaced auto and steelworkers, as well as those laid off from other sundry industries, who are expected to flood campuses this fall.
The swath this recession has cut across all economic sectors poses a difficult challenge for community colleges, said Joanie Friend, director of enrollment management for St. Louis Community College.
"The whole labor market has been thrown in the air," she said. "And people are moving all the seats around."
When the dust settles, community colleges hope to have a labor force positioned to work in an economy that many predict will look far different than pre-recession America.
"Nobody understands it," said Roderick Nunn, vice chancellor overseeing workforce development at St. Louis Community College. "And if anyone does say they know where the job market is going, they are full [of it]."
St. Louis Community College will soon, he continued, have a gauge of what the post-recession workplace will look like: Funded by a federal emergency grant, the school is about to conduct a comprehensive study to determine what businesses throughout the region will require upon emerging from the economic downturn.
Some students already have an inkling of where the jobs are, as well as where they plan to be in the future.
The need for qualified health care workers (especially nurses) is so great, in fact, that both St. Louis Community College and nearby Lewis and Clark Community College have waiting lists for courses in the health fields.
Lewis and Clark officials are also betting that the embrace of green technology and manufacturing will play a significant role once the economy rebounds.
At Lewis and Clark, students can take a class to learn skills needed to work in the local ConocoPhillips refinery. Or, they can take a course on ethanol production or the latest wastewater-treatment technology.
School officials say enrollment in the "mid-tech career" and health care programs is not limited to recent high school graduates.
"We’re getting people with degrees walking in the door who want to repackage themselves in many of these technology programs," said Tom Monroe, director of workforce development at Lewis and Clark.
It’s a paradox of the current economic climate, McClenney noted, that community colleges are seeing more applicants at the same time administrators are grappling with stagnant or reduced budget streams.
The community college system in Illinois, for instance, is pushing legislators and the governor to reconsider a bid to keep appropriations at the same level as last year.
And in a bid, perhaps, to direct stimulus funds to their respective schools, representatives of both Lewis and Clark and St. Louis Community College recently journeyed to Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials.
Community College Survey of Student Engagement