Obama visit spotlights region's growing success in job training

By speaking at Community College of Allegheny’s West Hills Center, President Barack Obama today is showcasing a job-training bright spot, part of the Pittsburgh region’s success in better-credentialing working adults.

But Pennsylvania as a whole has struggled mightily to entice older learners without college degrees back to the classroom. By some measures, the state has ranked nearly dead last nationally.

The longstanding problem has become a subject of heightened emphasis among policymakers in recent months, not only because of the skills those workers could offer employers if better trained, but also because those learners might help Pennsylvania campuses offset declines in the number of traditional-age high school graduates.

The CCAC center in North Fayette Township is a merger of two previous college facilities -- its Airport West Center in Robinson Township and its technology center on Neville Island. The new facility opened in 2007, not long before the recession hit.

The center has become a source of pride for the college given those who have finished associate degrees and certificates, campus officials say.

"This has been a model for what the I think the president and vice president want to talk about as far as replicating things across the country with grant resources and grant dollars," state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who also is a member of the CCAC Board of Trustees, said at today's event.

A “midnight welding course” that debuted at the center in 2009 reflected not just demand for those jobs but also the daytime classroom space crunch at many two-year colleges that ramped up their programming to retrain workers who lost their jobs in the bad economy.

The Monday-through-Thursday program met from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Pennsylvania has made significant strides in enrolling younger adults, including those just out of high school. But the nation as a whole has had difficulty attracting older learners, and the problem in Pennsylvania was especially pronounced, even before the recession.

This state ranked 49th in the percentage of residents 25 to 49 years old without a bachelor’s degree who were involved in undergraduate study, according to 2009 federal data. Just 129,000 of the approximately 2.9 million Pennsylvanians lacking bachelor’s degrees in that age range -- or 4.5 percent -- were in degree or certificate programs.

That put this state behind Louisiana and ahead of only New Hampshire, according to the 2009 US. Census and Education Department data assembled by the Boulder, Colo-based National Center for Higher Education Management systems.

The national average was 7 percent.

Experts have cited a range of reasons for Pennsylvania’s poor showing, from cost pressures in a high-tuition state to the legacy of steel and other blue-collar industries that used to offer the likelihood of decent-paying jobs without a college degree

Some have also noted that Pennsylvania’s community college system, created in the 1960s, was never finished. It originally was envisioned as a system of 28 community and technical colleges, but instead totals 14.

That has left many residents, especially in rural areas, far removed from low-cost campuses. There are fewer community colleges in this state than Kentucky, though its population is a third of Pennsylvania’s.

"Pennsylvania has a long history of its population going to high school and then going to the mines and going to the mills," said Mary Frances Archey, CCAC's vice president for student success and completion.

When those jobs went away, she said, "It took the people of this region a long time to realize that those jobs weren't coming back."

She said she believes Pennsylvania's among older adult learners has improved recently because of programs like the ones at West Hill Center.

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977. First Published April 16, 2014 2:51 PM

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