April 2, 2012 | last updated April 21, 2012 9:50 pm

Hands Off Community Colleges

Why is it that the natural impulse in Massachusetts -- to solve any problem -- is to create a bigger bureaucracy? The recent call to centralize the budgets, curriculum and oversight of the state's community colleges is a prime example. Clearly, there is a gap between the skills of many of our unemployed and the needs of employers in the state. Also, we have no doubt that, among the 15 community colleges, there are some that are not addressing those needs adequately.

But a "power grab" fix of these problems is not the answer. When it comes to addressing local needs and answering the concerns of our businesses, who better than area leaders who have the interest of their particular region at heart?

In our region, Mount Wachusett Community College has been integral to the fabric of our community for nearly five decades. Businesses have access to a huge number of resources to help them improve their competitiveness and productivity, and individuals have access to many educational opportunities to improve their employability and workplace readiness. Since the 1960s, Mount Wachusett has worked hand-in-hand with public and private entities to spur regional economic development. I seriously doubt we can count on the state's Board of Higher Education for similar collaboration.

Most recently, the college has been at the forefront in addressing local workforce needs by implementing new programs, such as biotechnology and health care, and by partnering with organizations such as the North Central Massachusetts Career Centers in Leominster and Gardner to assist the unemployed or underemployed in gaining new skills.

One of the most significant economic development efforts the state could undertake is to fund more seats in English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes. We have little idea what skills unemployed workers have will be uncovered by fostering their ability to communicate with employers and fellow workers. Massachusetts receives more than $12 million in federal funds for workforce preparedness alone.

Yet, those who desire English language skills have to wait for help. Clearly there are a number of similar gaps in the current arrangement for preparing people for available jobs, as well as future employment opportunities. Community colleges have a vital role in responding to these challenges and many are acting aggressively. Let's not hamstring them by centralizing their efforts in an expanded state bureaucracy, establishing new levels of mediocrity.

If certain community colleges need redirection, focus on fixing them. If the state's workforce training system is not delivering, fix that.

But, if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

David L. McKeehan is president of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce in Fitchburg.


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