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Community College for Career Changers

President Barack Obama has proposed a 10-year, multibillion-dollar initiative to beef up community college programs across the nation, with a primary objective of retraining Americans for the volatile workplace of the 21st century.

For tens of millions of underemployed, unemployed or insecure workers, this boost can’t come soon enough. But federal backing should eventually provide millions of career changers and new high school grads with relevant training at a very reasonable cost.

Of the $12 billion in proposed spending, $500 million would go to developing new online courses and $9 billion to challenge grants intended to spur innovations and enable more course schedules geared to the diverse needs of working students.

As daunting as a return to higher education can be, mid-career workers should take comfort from these statistics: Of the nation’s 11 million community college students, 58 percent are age 22 or older, according to a January 2008 report from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). And 27 percent of full-time community college students are also full-time workers. Learn how you could join their ranks and use community college to make a career change.

Challenges and Opportunities for Community Colleges

With their budgets severely strained and more students than ever knocking at their doors seeking superior educational value, community colleges are under stress.

“Our enrollment is up 30 percent over a year ago,” says Katie Headlee, assistant director of student advising at Cascadia Community College in Bothell, Washington. “We’re seeing more and more people who need to add to their professional qualifications or entirely change careers.”

Some community colleges will be forced to increase class sizes; others may be forced to turn away some students temporarily. When you’re checking out community colleges in your area, it’s important to find out how they’re coping.

But regardless of economic strains, the curricular focus of community college is unlikely to change: They’re particularly strong in fields of study relevant to careers in local industry. And currently, they’re emphasizing fields like allied health, public safety and alternative energy.

Community Colleges Offer a Range of IT Certification Courses

Information technology is one area of special strength for community colleges. For the IT certifications that can give aspiring technologists a toehold, many community colleges offer unsurpassed training.

Certifications in areas like desktop PCs and networking help career changers enter the field at a substantially higher pay level. “The Geek Squad says they pay entry-level technicians without a certification $10 an hour, but those with A+ start at $16,” says Gretchen Koch, director of workforce development programs at CompTIA.

Offshoring of jobs and economic volatility notwithstanding, bread-and-butter IT jobs will continue to be created, and community colleges train thousands to fill these openings each year. “There will always be a need for help-desk professionals, computer technicians, network administrators and Microsoft specialists,” says Koch.

Industry-standard certifications are the goal of the best-focused community college IT programs. “There might be some community colleges that offer a generic networking curriculum, but those that offer industry certifications are really setting up their students to find jobs,” says Fred Weiller, a spokesman for training programs at Cisco. The networking giant provides community colleges with curricula, instructor training and networking equipment for student computer laboratories.

“At a community college, the bang for the buck is huge,” says Christopher Cugno, a senior network engineer for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. Cugno should know: he paired education at a technical training center with courses in PERL, C, Cisco and more at Rancho Santiago Community College’s Santa Ana campus to change careers from grocery store manager. His work connecting Paramount business units around the world has earned him screen credits in films including Bee Movie and Shrek III.

Going Back to School for Mid-Career Workers

For workers who have lost hours or suffered a layoff, even the modest tuition at community colleges can be an obstacle to career change. Fortunately, help is widely available.

“We offer access to state and federal money for unemployed and underemployed students,” says Headlee. About 47 percent of community college students receive some financial aid, according to AACC.

It’s important to evaluate the quality of education offered by a specific community college before staking a career change on its programs.

“All community colleges are striving, but not all are achieving,” says Susan Stafford, author of Community College: Is It Right for You? “So you should go there and visit. Talk to people who have attended community colleges you’re interested in. Ask people in business about their experience with graduates of specific programs. Research how your community college is partnering with industry, how it’s participating in workforce development councils.”

Finally, expect a years-later return to school to pose substantial personal challenges. “To say it’s difficult is an understatement,” says Headlee. “The first step of walking in the building is difficult; so is getting into a study routine. But older students are serious about what they’re doing, so they tend to succeed.”   

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