Portland Press Herald: Short-term training programs flourish at community colleges
Every day Melissa Joudrey drives two hours each way from her home in Rumford and back to attend phlebotomy class at Southern Maine Community College.
The drive is worth it, she says, because a certificate in phlebotomy will qualify the 50-year-old to work as a medical assistant drawing blood samples from patients.
It’s worth it to get back into the workforce and off government benefits, she said. “This means freedom for me.”
In a bid to meet Maine’s workforce needs and provide an alternative to a two- or four-year degree at a time when college costs are rising and enrollment is plummeting, the Maine Community College System is expanding its offerings of short-term workforce training programs, providing certificates and degrees that come at low cost, no cost or even pay students. The community college system, with state, federal and private funds, foots the large share of the bill for most of these courses. The programs run from just weeks to almost a year long, and prepare students for jobs in fields including welding, 3D printing and healthcare.
The Maine Community College System says these programs are meeting the moment – supplying workers to boost the Maine economy and pulling Mainers away from minimum wage jobs and out of cycles of poverty.
And Maine is not the only state pouring resources into providing easily accessible career-focused certificates.
Short-term workforce training programs have exploded in popularity over the past few decades. From 2000 to 2020, the latest year for which data is available, the number of work-focused certificates awarded by public institutions in the United States more than doubled from 300,000 to almost 700,000, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Although programs that provide low-barrier job training are largely seen as a positive trend, some worry that not all certificate programs lead to careers in well-paying fields and that their accessibility might discourage students from striving for two- or four-year degrees that could lead to greater economic mobility. That, they say, could expand the divide between those with financial stability and those without.
The state of Maine has been supporting short-term workforce training for decades. But over the past few years, with significant federal COVID-19 relief funds, money from private donors in hand and a severe workforce shortage hampering the state’s economic recovery, the community college system has rapidly expanded its certificate and training program.
The timing was perfect for Joudrey.
While she always wanted to work in healthcare, other parts of her life – children, raising a family – got in the way, she said. She was on track to becoming a registered nurse about a decade ago. She made it part way through nursing school before she and her husband, who was the family’s sole earner, got a divorce.
After her divorce, she struggled with mental health, self-esteem and money. She relied on support from government benefit programs for close to 10 years before enrolling in the phlebotomy program.
“This is really going to open doors for me,” she said.
The seeds of today’s programs were planted over three decades ago.
In the mid-1990s, Maine leaders realized they had a problem: 75 percent of jobs in the state required more than a high school education but only 45 percent of Maine students were continuing their education past high school. If this pattern was allowed to continue, Maine employers would be left with open positions but Mainers wouldn’t be qualified to fill those jobs, leaving employers without enough qualified workers and untrained Mainers without jobs, said then Gov. John McKernan, who called the situation a “prescription for disaster.”
McKernan said businesses and schools had to work together. Businesses should tell schools what skills they needed in their workforce and schools should train students with those skills, he said. The Legislature created a program in 1994 that did just that: the Maine Quality Centers program.
With the goal of expanding Maine’s economy and creating above-minimum wage jobs, the state’s community college system has worked since then with employers to train new or existing employees at no or low cost to employers or employees.
In 2018, with a $3.5 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation nonprofit, the state’s community college system started to grow the program – offering more programs for more students in fields with high worker demand. Three years later, with $15.5 million more from the Alfond Foundation, $35 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds and $10 million of existing workforce training funds and private sector money, the community college system began to further scale-up the program.
Over the past decade, the program has grown around 30-fold. In the 2012 fiscal year, 219 students graduated from the workforce training program. In the 2021 fiscal year, the latest year for which data is available, 6,277 students graduated.
A lot has changed about the economy, higher education and the culture of work since Maine first opened the doors to its workforce training program.
Enrollment in two- and four-year institutions had already been dropping for around a decade when COVID hit in 2020 and compounded the trend. Nationally, there was a decline of 4.7 percent, or 662,000 students, in undergraduate enrollment in spring 2022 compared to a year before. In the fall of 2021, around 15,000 students were enrolled in the Maine Community College System, a drop of almost 3,000 students from a decade earlier.
At the same time, the pandemic changed how people viewed work and led to mass resignations and a major workforce shortage, fueling the demand for skilled workers.
Policymakers, community college administrators and businesses in states across the country have come together to expand vocational training to quickly get people back to work in industries with severe labor shortages.
Maine Community College System Chief Workforce Development Officer Dan Belyea said the system tries to work with employers that pay above minimum wage and provide good benefits. All the businesses currently working with the community college system to train new workers pay their employees between $18 and $25 an hour, said Belyea, significantly more than state’s hourly minimum wage of $12.75.
A phlebotomist in Maine, for example, can earn an annual salary of up to $43,447, around $23 an hour, according to Salary.com, a data analyzing company that advocates for fair pay by making salary information available.
In the brightly lit phlebotomy classroom, a group of students gathered in a tight circle around a desk, peering over one another’s shoulders trying to get a good look at the action.
Shavonne Smith, 23, was wearing a long-sleeved lab coat and blue rubber medical gloves as she practiced her second ever “live-stick” – using a needle to draw blood from another person. On her first attempt, she missed the vein. Before that, she had only worked on a banana.
Smith pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and fidgeted with the butterfly needle in the air, trying to figure out the right angle. The trainer, Olga Pope, who graduated from the program herself two years before, served as the “patient.” Smith took a deep breath and lightly stuck the needle into the back of Pope’s hand. This time she succeeded.
“Good job. That was a perfect angle,” said Pope. The rest of the students congratulated Smith, who looked a bit shocked, but was mostly elated.
Smith, a Cornish native, is training to be a medical assistant while also pursuing an associate degree in electrical engineering at Southern Maine Community College. Eventually she hopes to have a career in bio-instrumentation – using electronics to manage medical problems.
Before she started the phlebotomy course she was working in the food industry making minimum wage to support herself while in college. She’s excited that with a certificate in phlebotomy, she’ll be able to earn more, she said. She hopes to use her higher salary to save up for the rest of her classes and buy a new car to replace the one she has now, which is over 20 years old and doesn’t work very well.
The phlebotomy program offered by the Maine Community College System is run in coordination with NorDx, a Maine- and New Hampshire-based clinical lab. NorDx provides the instructors and pays students to learn during the six-week training course, which includes two weeks of classroom time and four weeks learning on the job. Once the students graduate, they are required to work for NorDx for 18 months
NorDx would not provide the salary scale for phlebotomists they employ, citing industry competition.
Some Maine Community Colleges System programs work similarly, where students are paid to learn and then required to work for a certain company after their training. In others, students get the certificate and then go off and find a job on their own.
The Maine Community College System tracks workforce training graduates by surveying them when they first finish their programs and then between three and six months after completion. The system was unable to provide statistics or data showing how student incomes change after completing workforce training programs in time for publication, but said students who respond to surveys after graduating have moved up income brackets into the middle class.
One expert in post-secondary education said that career-focused training programs have the potential to do a lot of good for individuals and the economy, but only if the programs lead to jobs that justify the time and cost of taking the program.
“Community colleges need to hold themselves accountable by making sure they’re offering only high-quality programs that lead to family-sustaining wage jobs,” said Josh Wyner founder and executive director of the college excellence program at the nonprofit Aspen Institute.
Across the country, every college that offers short-term work-focused programs has at least some programs that lead to jobs with family-sustaining wages and benefits, said Wyner. Those include jobs in fields such as information technology and healthcare. But many also offer jobs in less lucrative fields, such as elderly care, childcare or cosmetology that often pay at or close to minimum wage and do not help individuals escape poverty.
Almost all programs offered by Maine’s community colleges are in fields that on average pay significantly more than minimum wage – closer to or above $20 per hour.
Colby College education professor Adam Howard said it’s great to see partnerships between businesses and schools. “They’re expanding opportunities for people and it’s a benefit in many ways,” he said.
But he also said short-term workforce programs could deepen the inequities in higher education and the economy. He said these programs are offering upward economic mobility, but only to a certain extent – giving people opportunities to climb a few rungs up the economic ladder, but not to the top.
Studies consistently show that higher degrees lead to higher incomes. According to a 2021 Georgetown University study, people with bachelor’s degrees make on average $2.8 million over the course of their careers, people with associate degrees make $2 million and people with a high school diploma make $1.6 million.
A 2017 federal Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment study shows that certificates offer positive but small economic returns and that the returns decrease over the years.
However, higher education is often prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, whereas the community college system’s workforce training programs are mostly free to students.
“I believe in investing in people. These programs seem to be doing that. Investing in people, providing them skills, enrichment, additional opportunities,” Howard said.
“Are they providing the type of opportunities I wish everyone had? Opportunities to choose your own path, find meaningful work, control your work environment? Not always,” he said. “But they’re providing opportunities that make life more manageable.”