Obama has set a goal of 5 million more community college graduates and certificate-holders by 2020, part of broader push for the U.S. to again lead the world in number of college graduates.

The White House on Oct. 4 described “Skills for America’s Future” as an industry-led initiative to “dramatically improve” work force training partnerships with community colleges, paid for mostly by the participating companies.

The Gap Inc., for example, said it would expand community college partnerships in seven metro areas, including in-store job shadowing, interview and leadership training, and scholarships. The San Francisco-based company said it expects to hire up to 1,200 community college students in 2011, or five percent of its annual hiring.

Other participating employers are Accenture, McDonald’s, United Technologies, and P.G.&E.

Maureen Conway, executive director of the economic opportunities program at the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that will run the program, said navigating the system for matching training to jobs can be difficult for both students and small employers, and some larger companies have not worked with colleges.

“What’s wrong is, students come in and are falling through the cracks a bit and it’s not always clear what the right path is,” she said. “Courses aren’t always clearly connected to what’s going on in the local labor market.”

George Boggs, outgoing president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said he welcomes the attention, but warned that colleges are under pressure on many fronts. Community colleges are short of cash, jammed with laid-off workers and students who in better times would attend four-year schools, and spending heavily on remedial education for students ill-prepared for college.

“It’s a very difficult time for them and hard to focus on things such as reaching out to local business and industry,” Boggs said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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