Community colleges can diversify skill sets

LANSING — Community colleges serve as educational stepping-stones to higher learning institutions and trade schools, creating a gateway for students who want to advance their education, enter the workforce or enrich their skills.

The trade aspect of a job training program creates an opportunity for students to efficiently become part of the workforce, said Wayne Rodgers, a welding and fabrication professor at Grand Rapids Community College.

“Everything that we do out there in a manufacturing industry doesn’t take a four-year degree — it takes a specific skill,” said Rodgers. “To have a person take the additional humanities makes them well-rounded, but it keeps them out of the workforce.”

Rodgers estimated about 10 percent to 15 percent of the students in the noncredit job training program continue on to credit-bearing programs so they can obtain their associate’s degree. Other than that, Rodgers said the heart of community colleges is in technical work.

Don Cunningham, director of the University Center at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, said the location of schools tends to influence what students want, especially with noncredit opportunities.

Cunningham said Traverse City is both a rural area and a popular retirement destination. While the rural aspect makes the college the largest source for extended learning opportunities, retirement destination means about 80 percent of those opportunities are for leisure training like cooking and art.

“My office is doing mostly leisure training, and most of that demographic is 55 and up — there’s a big retirement community in Traverse City,” said Cunningham.

Because of the preference for noncredit leisure over professional noncredit courses, Cunningham said there is often no migration from leisure classes to credit programs. But popular professional programs have had to make the move.

“We had a very large non-credit construction trade course offering four years ago, and it was such a large offering that we turned it into a credit program,” said Cunningham. “But for the most part, people are coming back to learn a quick skill set or supplement what they already know.”

Michael Hansen, the president of the Michigan Community College Association, said some students in training programs are starting to use noncredit opportunities to build bridges to credit classes.

“Some of the air-conditioning, heating, ventilation — the real entry-level jobs are typically non-credit. You learn a specific skill — maybe you install weather stripping,” said Hansen.

Hansen said some students start with a decent hourly wage doing work with skills from their noncredit classes. Some then become interested in higher-skilled labor that pays more, leading them to credit courses that offer more advanced skill sets.

Whether people continue onto credit programs or use community colleges for training to enter the workforce, Cunningham said the advancement of any kind of learning is what’s important.

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