Faculty at Montgomery College, where I serve as president, trains thousands of students for middle-skills jobs, which account for 53 percent of the U.S. labor market. Such jobs require education beyond a high school degree — an associate’s degree, an apprenticeship or a certificate — but not necessarily four years of college. Community colleges enable students to earn these credentials in fewer than four years, with much less debt, and jump into workforce fields where employment demand is highest.
Just 10 miles from the White House, 27,000 students a year enroll at Montgomery College in fields where technology demands have grown in complexity over the last decade: auto technology and heating ventilation and air conditioning, for example require higher levels of training than in the past. Rapidly advancing fields such as information technology, cybersecurity and medical sonography call for increasingly specialized skills. Millions of middle-skills jobs that rely on such technology training allow workers to climb out of the minimum-wage workforce and onto the ladder of economic mobility. For the 12 million students enrolled in the 1,100 community colleges in the United States, such opportunities for rapid entry into high-demand fields can be life-changing. For businesses in need of skilled workers, they can be transformational.
Community colleges also serve burgeoning high-tech industries in innovative ways, expanding their reach with creative partnerships with local companies. More agile than four-year institutions, where lengthy curricular approvals are the norm, our colleges can quickly design courses to fulfill evolving industry needs. Midcareer professionals who already have four-year degrees take one or two classes to master a new laboratory technique or upskill for promotion potential. Last year, half of the students in Montgomery College’s specialized biotechnology workshops held doctoral degrees. Upskilling in the high-tech labor market means continual training as new technologies evolve, and community colleges are uniquely suited to these demands.
Unfortunately, the president’s rhetoric about strengthening American businesses rarely references the tireless efforts behind training our nation’s increasingly diverse workforce. As our nation grows, it will require more options for post-secondary education. Last fall, community colleges in Maryland partnered with an array of businesses that enrolled more than 3,000 students in apprenticeship programs in advanced manufacturing, health careers and HVAC. Such collaborations allow students to work while they study, a reality for roughly 67 percent of community college students nationally. These programs allow low-income students and immigrants to move quickly into the workplace while filling skills gaps in businesses, which boosts economic growth. A $2 million grant from the Department of Labor to Maryland’s Apprenticeship Training Council is helping our state stimulate even more apprenticeships.
For decades, community colleges have embraced the changing demographics of our nation, creating programs that are affordable and that support the needs of displaced workers, immigrants and students whose academic background has left them underprepared for the rigors of college. Community colleges meet students where they are, realizing that access to opportunity benefits all of us by building the middle class while strengthening businesses. Our colleges are also stepping stones for many students to four-year institution. Further educational attainment means more opportunity, increased earnings and lower unemployment. These are wins for all of us.
I hope that the president’s travels to Waukesha County Technical College in honor of workforce development week allowed him to see firsthand the opportunity that community colleges create for large swaths of Americans — minorities, veterans, immigrants and women among them — and the strengths that their students bring to American businesses.
Everyone in this country should be able to say “I am college material.”
DeRionne Pollard is president of Montgomery College.