Ky Voices: For-profit colleges essential in training work force

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, right with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis at Bluegrass Community & Technical College.
Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, right with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis at Bluegrass Community & Technical College. Herald-Leader

Recently, Jill Biden and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis brought their "Community College to Career" bus tour to Lexington to highlight one of President Barack Obama's top priorities — a topic that undoubtedly should be a focus of this election campaign.

In his recent budget proposal, Obama highlighted the need to align the education students receive at community colleges with the needs of local employers, thereby bridging the so-called "skills gap." He pledged $8 billion to fund this project to improve national competitiveness.

But as the director of University of Phoenix's Louisville Campus, I would argue that this is a project the federal government cannot tackle alone.

In fact, doing so ignores the choices most working adults are making to complete their degrees. Regionally accredited private academic programs are already preparing students for success in the Lexington area. These programs should be viewed as complementary, not as competition to the president's goals.

As a proud member of this community and partner to community colleges and local businesses across the region, we can think of no better place to highlight this effort than our state, where employers are struggling to find workers with the training and skills they need.

This skills gap isn't limited to just our region — it's also playing out in communities across the country, where employers have vacancies for good jobs but are finding few qualified applicants.

In an increasingly competitive global economy, job seekers need access to an education that meaningfully provides them with skill sets that increase their labor market value. After starting her college career at Eastern Kentucky State, Misty Spencer, an employee for Frito-Lay here in Lexington, transferred to our Louisville campus because of the flexibility it provided her while juggling her busy work schedule.

She credits the convenience of our program with helping her earn her associates degree fairly quickly, and is now pursuing a bachelors' degree — without having to compromise her responsibilities at Frito-Lay.

In today's economy, many of these job seekers are in similar positions to Misty, with job and family obligations and limited resources.

That's why the president's initiative is so important. And it's why we understand the critical value of the private sector in delivering a public good. Community colleges can be an invaluable educational resource, and private investment from institutions such as ours can also bridge the gap between a basic higher education experience and the kind of training that turns a student into an appealing job candidate.

Such shared partnerships don't only benefit students. Employers with better-educated and better-prepared work forces increase competitiveness and productivity, while successful businesses help grow the local and regional economy.

Recently, The Manufacturing Institute emphasized the need for employees with certifiable skills in its Roadmap to Education Reform for Manufacturing, and pointed to the kind of investment private institutions already provide.

And that's exactly why we prioritize investing in partnerships with community colleges. Many of our students transitioned from community colleges, and the career-focused education we provide helps to furnish them with the skills to compete — and win — in the work force.

Importantly, we can — and do — help our students succeed by creating partnerships in Louisville and our neighboring communities that bring together local teams of business leaders, academics, and human resources professionals who can identify high-demand industries in the local economy and help us develop the curricula and pathways for education that make students desirable for employment in those fields.

This isn't a question of public versus private. Our roles are intertwined: our teams work together at local community colleges to host career fairs and skills assessment workshops that will help students navigate the employment landscape and their own most marketable attributes. It is this kind of public-private partnership that can deliver most effectively for our students and for the local businesses that need skilled employees to grow and thrive.

The president's budget focused on community colleges, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. To realize our goals and to grow the economy at the local level, it is critical that we let private investors be a part of the solution. That is how we will build success in Kentucky and across America

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader