Graduation initiative would strengthen college trade programs

President Barack Obama spoke about the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), an initiative that would strengthen community colleges, including HVAC and plumbing and pipefitting programs, across the country by giving these institutions the necessary resources needed to produce graduates, who can meet the needs of a changing economy

Warren, Mich. — President Barack Obama spoke about the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), an initiative that would strengthen community colleges, including HVAC and plumbing and pipefitting programs, across the country by giving these institutions the necessary resources needed to produce graduates, who can meet the needs of a changing economy, for the first time, here at Macomb Community College, July 14, 2009.

Joe Iezzi, a student enrolled in Macomb Community College's HVAC program to retrain himself for a new career, introduced Obama to the audience gathered at the college's main campus to hear the President speak about the future of community colleges and how they will play a part in boosting the economy, and the AGI. Also during his speech, Obama spoke about Kellie Kulman, a student in Macomb Community College's pipefitting program.

“Kellie is a UAW worker at a Ford plant in Sterling Heights, Mich.,” said Obama. “She used to drive a forklift, right? But then she decided to train here at Macomb for a job that required new skills, and now she's an apprentice pipefitter. It's a telling example: Even as this painful restructuring takes place in our auto industry, workers are seeking out training for new auto jobs. And Joe and Kellie's story make clear what all of you know: Community colleges are an essential part of our recovery in the present — and our prosperity in the future.”

If passed, the AGI will call for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020 and create the Community College Challenge Fund with new grants, enabling community colleges and states to create and expand reforms. Colleges would also be able to create partnerships, expand course offerings, improve programs, and help students plan careers and stay in school. Innovative strategies to improve college completion would also be provided, improving efforts to track student progress, completion and success in the work place.

“Trade programs are one of the things that are a hallmark of community colleges and any initiative that will provide additional funding we will support, and we see that as advantageous for our students,” said Jim Sawyer, vice provost for career programs at Macomb Community College. “We don't know how exactly this will roll out, but we have had a lot of support for the trade programs here.”

The AGI would also fund modernization of community college facilities and create an online skills laboratory. The resources could be used to pay the interest on bonds or other debt, seed capital campaigns, or create state revolving loan funds. The new online skills laboratory would extend learning opportunities to working adults and students in rural areas.

According to Allan Levandowski, HVAC instructor at the College of Lake County, Grayslake, Ill., AGI funds would allow community colleges to infuse classrooms with the latest technology, such as renewable energy sources, green technology, solar, wind, geothermal, and energy auditing, that HVAC students need to learn about.

The AGI program would be a $12 billion dollar federal investment in community colleges over a span of 10 years. Nine billion dollars would be allocated to competitive challenge grants to create programs for economic growth; $2.5 billion would be allocated to construction and renovation of community college facilities; and $500 million would go to new online courses and skills laboratory.

The American Graduation Initiative would “reform and strengthen community colleges … so that they get the resources students and schools need - and the results workers and businesses demand,” said Obama.

The President's Council of Economic Advisers released a report, offering an overview of future employment trends, the day before he spoke at Macomb Community College. Report statistics go hand-in-hand with Obama's message of funding community colleges in order to produce graduates with the necessary skills for future jobs.

The report forecasts that there will be a demand for skilled workers, such as plumbers, and employment will be strong in the clean energy industry. It also projects that occupations requiring only an associate's degree or some type of vocational training will grow faster than occupation's requiring a bachelor's degree or more.

“There is a realization that things are changing, we are going more to a knowledge economy, but the construction fields will continue to remain,” said Sawyer. “You need a higher skilled person who can support the high-level and high-tech equipment used in the trades. This is a niche the community colleges fill very well compared to other education providers.”

Enrollment has increased overall for trade programs at Macomb Community College since there is an increased interest in learning a trade due to the many layoffs in the area's auto industry.

“We have seen an increased enrollment in the HVAC and welding programs in the past few years,” said Sawyer. “Right now the biggest push is in the HVAC or the energy area. A renewable energy curriculum has been added into the program, so students are prepared in that respect.”

The renewable energy certification focuses on wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and hydrogen fuel cell — all emerging technologies needed for future jobs.

“You still need to understand the basics of the trade, so what we did was make a 15 credit certificate and attach it to an existing industrial or applied technology certificate or degree,” said Sawyer.

Like Macomb Community College, many community colleges across the country are experiencing an increase in enrollment in trade programs, including plumbing and pipefitting, HVAC and welding.

“Enrollment in the HVAC Program at Ivy Tech Community College across the region and the state has grown exponentially as the influx of displaced workers are seeing the benefit of gaining these high-end skills as they are then afforded opportunities in many fields,” explained Randall K. Gardner, associate professor at Ivy Tech Community College, Indianapolis, and chair of Indiana's HVAC committee. “Learners see a value of learning a trade and in part because this is a skill “that can't be exported,” and they realize that to be effective in the workforce there has to be a higher level of education and skill.”