Vocational training needed at junior colleges

January 31, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

Here in California they used to call it junior college (the two-year college) and then they changed to the term community college, but whatever, I think I am correct in saying initially the emphasis was on vocational or trade training, as opposed to the conventional academic model of four years of college.

And it worked well, very well. It worked for kids right out of high school, young men and women fresh out of the military, older people looking to change careers or find better job skills, and let’s don’t forget employers always in need of skilled workers. And on that latter point, even though business people are usually conservative and don’t like the government to spend too much money, they appreciated having future employees trained at no direct cost to them.

So it was with some dismay that I read in my local newspaper this morning that our local community college is faced with a $2 million budget shortfall and to deal with it is considering dropping several vocational classes.

One of those classes is one to train heavy equipment operators. A local construction company official said it concerned him too. He said a lot of current operators are starting to retire and people are needed to replace them, but employers need trained operators, because for one thing, that equipment is expensive. And I would think clients for construction companies would prefer that those operators be professional.

(And as one commentor said on the newspaper’s online edition: this is a bad time to cut training in construction when Obama is talking about using much of that stimulus money for improving the infrastructure.)

Of course the problem here is the state’s huge budget deficit. California lawmakers with the help of the governor push through far more in spending than is brought in by taxes – tax collections have dropped off drastically with the devastation in the economy (even in good times, the state government spends more than it takes in, as governments seem wont to do in this country).

So what to cut.

Sure the decision has to be made. The community college offers a myriad of programs these days, everything from basket weaving to computer technology to appreciation of Zen Buddhism (well I think I made up that last one, but I was trying to cover the alphabet).

While the community colleges may have begun as primarily vocational in nature, over the years they became kind of a second chance at college. Even before I graduated from high school, I recall that some representatives from our local community college told us seniors that if we had slacked off in high school but now decided we might want to go to college after all – no problem, anyone can get into junior college, and then after successfully completing two years, one could transfer to a four-year institution, if need be. And in my age group, a whole lot of returning Vietnam and Vietnam era veterans made use of the GI Bill education benefits (which for the time were generous) and either got themselves trade training, such as mechanic, carpenter, welder, heavy equipment operator, and so on, or they did the four-year college thing and if they were wise (unlike this writer) got into a good paying profession.

People of all ages have taken advantage over the years of the wide array of classes offered at the community colleges. The costs have been relatively low and the benefits high (costs have risen more sharply in recent years). The colleges offered a lot of night classes and outreach classes in the various communities and even on-line classes.

I think the much needed vocational training should be continued. I do think, though, that industry groups (construction, equipment and auto repair, and so on) should pool together and on their own (separate from the normal taxes) help finance some of these training programs (and maybe they do to some degree).

And by the way, one of the most popular courses offered is our local community college’s nursing program. I have not read that it is in danger of being cut, but it is overcrowded and has a waiting list for prospective students.

As for the academic side, that’s a tough one. I think academic programs should be continued, but I think there probably needs to be some higher standards for students as they continue in order to weed out those who are not too serious. Non-serious students don’t usually make it through vocational programs, but they sometimes waste their time and the time of instructors and other more serious students on the academic side.

Administration is always a good area to look for saving money. For some reason education seems to be always top heavy in administration. The system in which a separate assistant administrator (who adds nothing directly to the instructional program) must be hired to administer each section of the government education codes (title this, title that) is the main culprit – it should be streamlined.

Trying to figure out which classes to cut is often an exercise in subjectivity. But I would say that the basket weaving classes and all the ones designed for primarily enjoyment (not a bad thing) probably should be subject to cuts in lean budget times.

Among other areas besides heavy equipment operator training that are being considered for budget cuts at my local community college are the school newspaper (ouch that hurts, me being a former newspaper reporter, but it is a sign of the times and it would be replaced by the electronic mode, I understand), real estate program (not a bad idea, we have a lot of local real estate agents with little to do already), closing the school pool between November and February (most years that would seem a good idea– this year you could swim most days without a heated pool – and just why does the school need a pool?), athletic programs (and just why do we have to pay for athletics with education dollars?), and as I mentioned, it’s always a subjective matter.

(I didn’t mention that enrollment needs to be measured, since programs with low enrollment would usually be cut anyway, I would think).

There are private trade schools (not too much in this local area), but I notice that many of them depend upon government funding. Again, I do think industry should step up to the plate and support vocational training as much as it can. But everyone benefits from vocational training.

Next time  your car breaks down on the freeway or your toilet overflows think how much you want someone with good training to come to your rescue.