Politicians, Business Leaders Ask High Schoolers to Consider Community College

Four-year colleges are often seen as the natural next step for high school students, but business leaders and politicians want teens to consider another option: community college.

An associate degree from a two-year technical program may be the quickest route for recent high school graduates to enter a stable, lucrative career field. It may also be the only way to keep up with workforce demands, said President Obama.

"Jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience," the president said at a 2010 summit of community college leaders. "We will not fill those jobs--or keep those jobs on our shores--without the training offered by community colleges."

An estimated 600,000 jobs, largely in manufacturing, currently sit unfilled because of a lack of qualified workers, Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, noted last week in written testimony to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

High schools, community colleges, and businesses need to work together to fill that gap, experts say, and cities such as Chicago are spearheading initiatives to do just that.

[Learn why community colleges are key to STEM education.]

Five high schools in the Chicago Public Schools district, including Corliss High School, Chicago Vocational Career Academy, and Lake View High School, began offering career-training tracks in September. The vocational programs are aligned with the needs of area businesses such as IBM, Motorola, and Verizon, which each partnered with a school to design alternative curricula, according to the CPS Website.

"They have a shortage of workers. We have a student population ready to fill those jobs if they have the educational opportunities to do it," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told WBEZ last year.

Students enrolled in the program can earn a technical certification and credit toward an associate degree from City Colleges of Chicago, along with a high school diploma.

[Find out why students excel at vocational high schools.]

Promoting two-year tech pathways can also open students' eyes to lucrative careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Electrical engineering technicians earn a median salary of about $56,000 with an associate degree, and the median pay for nuclear technicians is roughly $68,000 with an associate's, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Programs such as those in Chicago can also help legitimize community college education, which Timmons, with the National Association of Manufacturers, said is often viewed as second rate.

"Skill certifications can and should be part of a traditional education system, but a wall has been built between education and job training by institutions on both sides of that divide," he said.

Experts say breaking down that wall would allow more high school students to acquire valuable career skills and help employers plug a widening skills gap.

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