ANNANDALE, Va. -- President Barack Obama called on Congress Monday to create an $8 billion fund to train community college students for high-growth industries, giving a financial incentive to schools whose graduates are getting jobs.
The fund was part of Obama's proposed budget for 2013. The overall package aims to achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade by restraining government spending and raising taxes on the wealthy, while boosting spending in some areas, including education.
Obama warned Congress that blocking investments in education and other proposals in his budget would be standing in the way of "America's comeback."
"By reducing our deficit in the long term, what that allows us to do is to invest in the things that will help grow our economy right now," Obama said during remarks at Northern Virginia Community College.
The White House says the "Community College to Career Fund" would train 2 million workers for jobs in potential growth areas such as electronic medical records and cyber security within sectors such as health care, transportation and advanced manufacturing.
A key component of the community college plan would institute "pay for performance" in job training, meaning there would be financial incentives to ensure that trainees find permanent jobs -- particularly for programs that place individuals facing the greatest hurdles getting work. It also would promote training of entrepreneurs, provide grants for state and local government to recruit companies, and support paid internships for low-income community college students.
Obama said community colleges needs resources to become community career centers where students can learn skills that local businesses need immediately.
"This should be an engine of job growth all across the country, these community colleges, and that's why we've got to support them," Obama said.
Obama pointed to programs in Louisville, Ky., Charlotte, N.C., and Orlando, Fla., as good examples.
UPS overnight workers in Louisville get a tuition-and-book benefit at the University of Louisville or Jefferson Community and Technical College as part of a program designed to help the company recruit and retain workers. Central Piedmont Technical College in Charlotte created a two-year degree in mechatronics, which combines skills in mechanical, electrical and computer fields. In Orlando, Northrop Grumman has aggressively hired laser technicians who completed a program developed by Valencia College because of demand.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters on a conference call that the specifics of the pay-for-performance aspect of the plan are still being hammered out, but it's possible that about $500 million would go toward rewarding programs that successfully place workers.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in a statement that he's "skeptical" of the president's plan, but that Republicans support the goal of modernizing federal job training programs.
"The committee will give the president's proposal the consideration it deserves," Kline said.
But Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who chairs a subcommittee with jurisdiction over higher education matters, said the president's proposal "does not solve problems," and a better solution is to "evaluate the current federal jobs programs, make them more efficient and eliminate the totally inefficient ones."
Even as the United States struggles to emerge from the economic downturn, there are high-tech industries with a shortage of workers. And it is anticipated there will be 2 million job openings in manufacturing nationally through 2018, mostly due to baby boomer retirement, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. The catch is that these types of jobs frequently require the ability to operate complicated machinery and follow detailed instructions, as well as some expertise in subjects like math and statistics.
As costs at four-year colleges have soared, enrollments at community colleges have increased by 25 percent during the last decade and now top more than 6 million students, according to the American Institutes for Research. People with a one-year certificate or two-year degree in certain career fields can earn higher salaries than those with a traditional college degree, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the center at Georgetown University.
Mark Schneider, the former U.S. commissioner of education statistics who now serves as vice president at the American Institutes for Research, said there's no doubt that high-tech companies need skilled workers. But he said there are challenges with leaning heavily on community colleges. Many students enter community colleges lacking math skills. The sophisticated equipment needed for training is expensive, and there's little known about the effectiveness of individual community colleges programs across the country, he said.
"We need measures of how well they are training their students, how well their students are being placed in the job market, and ... are they making money?" Schneider said. "We need to track that really, really carefully. And, we need to make all that information available to students before they sign on ... and before taxpayers subsidize all of this."