Forging ahead on training

Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College offers programs in virtually all construction-related fields. (Photo: Ivy Tech)

Community colleges always have played an integral role in training workers for infrastructure- and transportation-related fields like truck driving, construction, welding and electrical work.

If the $1 trillion public/private infrastructure plan proposed by President Donald Trump comes to pass, these fields will grow significantly, at least for a while, which could affect community colleges and their programming. But two-year schools say they will be motoring ahead in any case.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that from 2014-2024, employment in the construction industry on the whole will grow 13 percent, from 6.1 million to 6.9 million jobs. During that same period, electrician positions will rise 13.7 percent, from 629,000 to 715,000; heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver employment will expand 3.1 percent, from 885,000 to 912,000; and welding, soldering and brazing jobs will increase less than 1 percent, from 457,000 to 461,000, BLS statistics show.

A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that Trump’s infrastructure proposal could create 11 million jobs but casts some doubt on how many of them would lead to sustainable employment. But for whatever period the jobs do last, the authors foresee a key role for community colleges in getting workers up to speed for that endeavor.

One way or another

The president this week provided an outline of his infrastructure plan in his proposed federal budget, which would include $200 billion in direct federal spending over the next decade for roads, bridges, railroads, ports, airports and broadband. It also includes incentives for states, cities and private investors and efforts to cut burdensome regulations.

“Simply providing more federal funding for infrastructure is not the solution,” according to a budget summary. The administration is expected to soon provide more details on the plan, including a legislative package later this year.

Leaders on community college campuses say their programs would be likely to benefit from federal education and training dollars, but they believe support for infrastructure-related education will remain a pressing need whether or not the still-undefined Trump package passes.

That’s certainly the viewpoint of Jess Guerra, chair of advanced transportation and manufacturing at Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC) and director of the region-wide Transportation Workforce Institute, which brings together employers and institutions of higher education across Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“Our hope is that there is a good amount allocated to go into the educational component, whether we’re going to be focusing on rebuilding or re-strengthening bridges and roads, or whatever else,” he says. “Employees need to have the latest and greatest in terms of training and skills and competencies that are going to be required, to make this an infrastructure upgrade that’s going to carry us for the next however-many years.”

The Transportation Workforce Institute last year hosted the Greater Los Angeles Transportation and Warehousing Sector Educators Meeting, which brought together community college, university and workforce development practitioners from the area. (Photo: TWI)

Community colleges always face a need for training dollars for such career and technical education fields, Guerra says.

“These are not people who are just going to go into one career [and stay there],” he says. “A lot of it goes into construction, and the programs and projects that build those systems. It’s all tied back into transportation.”

Allison Holmes, associate dean at Davidson County Community College in North Carolina also hopes the Trump infrastructure package would bring educational and training dollars, especially for shorter-term non-degree programs that are not eligible for federal financial aid.

In the past, she says, “We have received money through federal grants for training of faculty, or to become third-party testers for CDL [commercial driver’s licenses]. We have used money to pay for scholarships. We’ve had equipment donated — which is not coming from the federal government — working in partnership with companies, including vehicles, tractors and trailers. Hopefully, we’ll see other grants that will help with the training or the staffing.”

Getting the word out

Ivy Tech Community College, which has 30 campuses throughout Indiana, has seen projections that about 500,000 “middle-skills” positions would need to be filled in the next decade, says President Sue Ellspermann. “With this $1 trillion infrastructure investment, that would push that number up considerably,” she says. “This moves the needle from a half-million considerably north.”

This excerpt comes from the current issue of the Community College Journal, which has been published by the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.​

Among the areas that Ellspermann hopes the federal government package would bolster is the marketing of infrastructure-related programs, which has proved to be a challenge — and would be that much more important.

“Without the marketing dollars to alert and shift the thinking of 18-year-olds and incumbent workers to understand the great job opportunities out there, it’s hard for us,” she says. “It’s not in our current funding mechanism.”

Community colleges face these challenges anyway given the coming “tsunami of retiring workers” in the Baby Boom generation, Ellspermann says. “But this level of investment in infrastructure would raise that to an even more challenging level, to attract enough talent,” she says. “And these are pipelines [of talent] that take multiple years to build.

From when someone enters a program to when you have a highly skilled sheet metal worker, or electrician, takes several years.”

Depending on how the package shapes up, Ellspermann figures her college and others might need to launch new programming in addition to beefing up existing degrees and certificates. “It will be a big undertaking,” she says.

Read the full article in Community College Journal online.

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.