When the call comes “we’d like six weeks” lead time to get a new class running, said Graves, Delta’s executive director of corporate services. “We can do it in four. We’ve actually done it in two.”

Certainly community colleges have shortcomings and challenges, namely high failure rates for students who intend eventually to earn a degree.

Community colleges say that’s to be expected given the wide mission they’re asked to perform, and the fact that they receive just 27 percent of total public dollars spent on public higher education but serve 43 percent of students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Enrollments have risen more than a quarter over the last decade, yet tuition has held relatively steady even as costs have soared at four-year colleges. For the average enrolled student, community college is basically free when you factor in grants and aid, according to the College Board.

But criticisms about bureaucracy and lack of success in community colleges are usually directed at for-credit programs and degrees.

Non-credit programs, which serve an estimated 5 million out of 13 million community college students nationally, often have a very different, more entrepreneurial feel. Such instruction doesn’t have to please curriculum committees and state boards, just local employers and employees. And often what they want is speed.

“On the non-credit side, there’s much more flexibility,” said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “There’s much less of an approval process, and the structures of the colleges tend to be me much leaner.”

In his budget unveiled last week, Obama asked Congress to create an $8 billion fund to help community colleges train up to 2 million workers for jobs in high-growth fields, and to award financial incentives to make sure trainees find permanent work. There were few other details about how the proposal might work, and it faces long odds in Congress.

Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, said he believes such targeted workforce programs can be successful if well-focused, but there’s been little hard research.

One concern: If training is too narrowly tailored to particular companies, and doesn’t award credit, workers may be stuck with non-transferable skills if the employer goes under.

Brian Gasiewski, a division leader on the factory floor at Fitzpatrick, doesn’t worry much about that. Skills like GDT, he said, are important across the industry.

Gasiewski was previously enrolled in a degree program at Macomb but isn’t at the moment due to family and time constraints. He may return someday, but for now says focusing on training targeted to precisely what Fitzpatrick does is the best way to advance his career here.

That looks like a better bet than it might have two years ago, when the company’s sales fell by half. In 2011, however, they rebounded to their second highest level ever.


Add your opinion to the discussion.