Long before the US began shedding millions of jobs last year, American politicians were obsessed with retraining people cast off by the global economy. “The average worker will change jobs six or seven times in a lifetime,” Bill Clinton said in an address to the Cleveland City Club in 1994. That was not much help: how do you train people for tomorrow’s jobs if you do not know what tomorrow’s jobs will be?
President Barack Obama’s call for $12bn (£7.4bn, €8.5bn) of investment in “community colleges” is evidence that the flux Mr Clinton alluded to is ending. Community colleges offer a range of short-term credentialing courses along with two-year and four-year degrees. They are where you go to become a dental hygienist, a cyber-security expert, a nurse or a solar-energy technician. If job-specific training is making more sense, then the job market is probably growing more predictable. The economy may be in a terrible rut, but we are, to a degree, re-entering the world of stable, credentialed work.
Community colleges now accommodate half the nation’s undergraduates. Enrolment has leapt by a million students in the past decade, to more than 6m. Most are funded by individual states, which have had to cut their budgets even as demand for spaces has risen, and no one has picked up the slack. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that “community colleges receive less than one-third the level of federal support per full-time-equivalent student ($790) that public four-year colleges do ($2,600).”