Emanuel Announces City Colleges of Chicago Workforce Training Initiative

Community colleges will be at the center of an initiative Chicago is launching to address a troubling skills gap and “rebuild and re-imagine” the city’s educational system, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in December. City Colleges of Chicago’s new “College to Careers” program will create partnerships with local corporations and organizations to prepare city residents for jobs in high-growth industries such as health care, transportation, logistics and information technology.

Emanuel said he is charging “community colleges with a new mission, to train the workforce of today for the jobs of tomorrow, to give our students the ability to achieve a middle-class standard of living, [and] to provide our companies with the skilled workers they need.”

A major piece of the program will draw on industry to help design new community college programs, City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Cheryl Hyman said. Employees and retirees from major local businesses will work with faculty to help write curriculum on an ongoing basis.

Initially, the program will focus on developing a more industry-ready curriculum in the health care, transportation and distribution fields, then add information technology, business, manufacturing, culinary and tourism, Hyman said.

Starting in the fall of 2012, Malcolm X College, a community college on Chicago’s West Side, will take advantage of that campus’ proximity to the Illinois Medical District and build upon its growing allied health programs. Olive-Harvey College, on the South Side, will train students in transportation logistics with the help of delivery giant UPS, Canadian National Railway and AAR, a commercial aviation company. In some cases, corporations will make employees available to teach courses.

AAR, one of the first companies to sign on the mayor’s initiative, will begin working with Olive-Harvey College this month to map out the nuts and bolts of the curriculum its employees will help develop, says Cheryle Jackson, vice president of government affairs and corporate development.

“We have a large opening of jobs at AAR, about 10 percent,” therefore, filling these technical jobs is important to our business,” said Jackson, referring to such positions as avionic technicians and aviation mechanics.

To pay for the initiative, partners are dedicating their time and City Colleges is leveraging existing resources, and they expect to attract more investment. As for existing teachers and programs, Hyman said she expects City Colleges will increase its faculty and the colleges’ other educational tracks and liberal arts offerings will remain in place. Rush University Medical Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Walgreens and Baxter, a global medical products and services company, are among other partners Emanuel expects to lend their expertise.

Emanuel told the Economic Club of Chicago, a business group composed of the city’s corporate elite that community colleges were the catapult for the World War II generation that became the “most productive and economically expansive in American history,” and community colleges can serve the same function in the 21st century in lifting the country out of the recession.

City Colleges of Chicago, a network of seven community colleges, was founded in 1911 when the Progressive Movement led by Jane Addams and John Dewey was demanding access to higher education for the nation’s poor.

Citing a litany of recent news headlines about the nation’s stubborn unemployment rate, Emanuel noted that more than 60 percent of the nation’s small businesses are struggling to find skilled applicants. “It’s unconscionable that you can have 10 percent unemployment and about 100,000 job openings in the Chicagoland area, and we can’t do anything about it. Those two facts do not go together in one of the worse recessions in our country’s history.”

By 2020, Chicago will need approximately 75,000 more health care workers. More than a third of the positions will require an associate degree. During the next eight years, the Chicago area will need roughly 4,000 new truck drivers.

The solution to this skills gap, Emanuel said, is the community college system, where the majority of students get their postsecondary education and training. City Colleges of Chicago enrolls 120,000 students annually with nearly 13,000 enrolled in occupational programs. The majority, 37 percent, of its students are Black, 35 percent are Hispanic, 19 percent are White and 7 percent are Asian City Colleges, under an initiative called Reinvention, is reworking its curriculum to realign it better with industry needs, Hyman said. City Colleges has also supplied students with free web access to software that will be used in a modern-day workplace.

Launched a little more than a year ago, Reinvention is an effort to review and revise City Colleges’ programs to ensure that students are ready for a four-year institution or a career when they graduate.

For years, City Colleges was plagued by a low 7 percent graduation rate. Too many students, Hyman said, weren’t prepared for college and did not get adequate advising. Another troubling statistic: 54 percent of students left without completing at least one semester’s worth of credits in three years, she said.

“Our nation is depending on community colleges to succeed or it will be hard for our nation to thrive.”