By Roger Riddell
July 11, 2017 - The decline of the coal industry, coupled with the socioeconomic issues that have long faced coal country, have created an opportunity for community colleges to work with workforce-development organizations, local employers and economic development coalitions to assist in shifting and revitalizing local economies, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
While some have left the region in pursuit of better opportunities, many remain as a result of being unable to afford such a move or need to handle obligations to their families — but shorter, skills-focused programs are aiming to quickly and affordably prepare workers to fill open positions.
For those who didn't complete high school or have trouble passing placement exams, many community colleges in the region have also integrated adult education into their technical programs, according to The Chronicle, and Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College President Vic Adams says some certificate programs have seen completion rates as high as 75%.
Community colleges are in a prime position to play a key role in revitalizing the economies of struggling regions as industries like coal are left behind in favor of newer, more efficient technologies. Better suited for career and technical education, these schools' also have the benefit of more than likely being located in the struggling rural communities they're working to improve, as opposed to a four-year public, private college or university more likely to be located in an urban setting with its own local issues to be addressed.
Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from the 2016 election is that a huge subset of rural workers felt increasingly isolated by a changing economy they were no longer suited for due to a lack of skills. And the unfortunate reality is that, instead of providing real opportunities to help these workers gain newer, more relevant skills or encouraging companies in new industries to expand some of their operations to these areas rather than urban locales, many policymakers simply paid lip service to their plight with temporary fixes.
Community colleges, in collaboration with local employers and workforce-development agencies, now have an opportunity to make a meaningful difference for these workers, potentially securing greater state support in the process and changing educational outlooks for a population that may not have seen school beyond K-12 as an option.