Op-EdAppeared in U.S. News & World Report on July 20, 2012By David Park

Community Colleges Prepare the Next Generation of Workers

David Park is founder and CEO of Austin Capital, LLC and chairman and cofounder of Job Creators Alliance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Dallas focused on developing free market solutions to America’s economic and employment challenges.

Over the last several decades, the U.S. education system has fallen from among the best in the world to one of the worst among industrialized countries. The next generation of American workers lacks the preparation to step into the jobs of today in an increasingly global marketplace.

At a time when we, as Americans, need to retain our competitive and creative edge, steps must be taken in order to ensure the success of the future business leaders of America. The poor performance of America’s schools cannot be attributed to lack of money thrown at the problem. The United States tops the world in spending per student on education, yet is perpetually stuck with mediocre or poor showings on standardized tests. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s international education rankings, the United States has fallen to “average”. In addition, much of that money is being wasted on administrative overhead rather than going to pay teachers and buy books.

Developing new pathways for comprehensive education reform has never been more critical for the United States.

For many, community college is sometimes the only viable path to educational advancement. In fact, nearly half of the entire United States undergraduate student population is enrolled in community colleges. And these institutions are diverse: Some offer technical workforce credentials, while others maintain comprehensive sets of transfer and career training programs.

One such school is Valencia College, which was awarded the 2011 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence as the nation’s top community college–and it offers a case study of the possibilities of community college education, and the implications for America’s businesses. Valencia, in partnership with local companies, has developed a focused curriculum that offers training in specific areas, a huge advantage for those who cannot attend four-year programs.

Valencia’s advantages are emblematic of the community college model and the opportunities these institutions can provide, particularly for lower income families. Graduates of community colleges and other technical educational programs are well-positioned to provide the kind of workforce that businesses are looking for while earning a good living. In fact, a Sectoral Employment Impact Study found that educational programs with curriculum specifically tailored to employer needs raised earnings by $4,000, and the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program estimates that associate degree holders earn 20 to 30 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. There are even some reports that indicate that because these programs provide technical training and practical skills, community college graduates earn a higher salary, on average, than graduates of traditional four-year institutions–up to $10,000 more per year.

Obviously, it’s not just the students who benefit–this is also a boon for employers. Northrup Grumman has started hiring directly from Valencia, allowing them to avoid spending half the year on the road, looking for workers qualified to become laser technicians for military hardware. Career program advisers are embedded in each technical department to help students stay on track and many advisers have had prior experience in the industry, enabling them to keep an eye on career trends and maintain connections that could benefit students.

Even more traditional universities, including Wake Forest University, Southern Methodist University, and Hiram College, are also beginning to incorporate an entrepreneurial focus because it appeals to many students in understanding business and opening opportunities for jobs.

This is also giving way to institutions that are solely focused on producing “future leaders of a global, free-enterprise society,” like Northwood University, which has campuses in Florida, Michigan, and Texas.

In general, most other countries place far more emphasis on vocational education than we do in America. The logic driving this kind of educational system is that from the later teenage years onward, young people learn best in structured programs that combine work and learning, where learning is contextual and applied. Ultimately, this helps create better jobs and–more importantly–a better workforce.

The American Dream rests on the promise of economic opportunity, with a middle class lifestyle for those willing to work for it. Yet millions of today’s youth are entering the workforce without marketable skills.

I firmly believe, along with my fellow business leaders at Job Creators Alliance, that the current state of the American education system is on a downward trend and losing sight of the very important goal of preparing students to lead productive and prosperous lives. In order to make this transition, a strategy must be implemented to engage educators and employers in a more collaborative way to train the next generation of workers, thereby producing social and economic returns on investment.