Obama plan: Community colleges as economy engines

As our nation's economic recovery continues to pick up steam with 3.7 million new jobs added over the last 23 months, America has a powerful secret weapon that can help us fast-track thousands of Kentuckians back into meaningful employment in short order: smart investments in our community college system.

While the national unemployment rate continues to fall to levels unseen since President Barack Obama took office, we still have millions of unfilled job openings and millions of unemployed citizens actively looking for work. It's time to connect the dots.

That's why today we will be visiting Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington to highlight the success of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System in putting local residents back to work.

Our visit is part of our three-day bus tour through cities in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina to highlight the president's proposal to create an $8 billion Community College to Career Fund. This initiative helps match what's taught in the classroom with the needs of local employers.

In many ways, Kentucky is a model for what we hope to accomplish on a national scale. Together, the state's 16 community colleges — with 68 campuses across the state — are partnering with 6,000 state businesses to train more than 50,000 workers annually for sustainable careers.

For example, the schools have worked together to implement a nursing training program that offers mentoring and scholarship programs to broaden access to nursing careers for students of all income levels. Kentucky's community colleges have trained more than 71 percent of the state's workforce in the allied health field.

America has a critical nursing shortage, and we expect it will only intensify as Baby Boomers get older and the need for health care grows. There are more nurses in their 50s right now than any other age range, so it's critical that we prepare for these retirements and train our next generation of nurses.

But training future nurses is only one small piece of a statewide Workforce Solutions partnership that has brought together Kentucky community college leaders with industry executives. Together, they've tailored curriculums to help Kentucky employers that have urgent needs for skilled workers in fields such as biotechnology, energy, health care, manufacturing and plumbing and steam fitting.

Community colleges are uniquely American institutions. They understand the needs of local employers. They are affordable. And they can adapt training programs quickly to meet regional needs. Most importantly, Americans with an associate's degree earn nearly $8,000 more a year than those with a high school diploma alone.

The president's proposal builds on successful Department of Labor investments that have helped hundreds of community colleges hire faculty and staff, equip their training centers and develop curriculums. Our proposal would:

Provide workers with the latest certified training and skills for jobs in high-growth industries.

Support paid internships for low-income students so they can earn school credit for work-based learning and gain employment experience.

Establish public-private partnerships to encourage businesses to do business in jurisdictions with pools of highly qualified local workers.

Create pathways to entrepreneurship for five million Americans through intensive programs that help participants open their own small businesses.

The president's goal is to graduate an additional 5 million students from our community college system by 2020. We know community colleges can help prepare workers for jobs that are open today in industries that will still be hiring tomorrow.

Over the next decade, nearly half of all U.S. job openings will be for "middle-skill" jobs. These are positions that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree. These are white-collar, blue-collar and green-collar jobs that pay family-sustaining wages.

Of course, some politicians believe that in this time of fiscal challenge, we cannot afford to invest in the American worker. But they are shortsighted and wrong.

America's future will only be as strong as the industries we create and grow, and that means we must support our entrepreneurs, our workers and the institutions that train them.

Working together, we can train Kentuckians for fulfilling careers in high-growth industries, grow our economy and create an America that's truly built to last.