Little room for retraining workers

Students in class at a Michigan community college.

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TESS VIGELAND: Earlier this week GM unveiled its new plug-in hybrid, the Volt. It's at least a couple of years before you can actully buy one. Today, Chrysler said that next week dealers will get a peek at plans for its new electric vehicle.

Carmakers are feeling the pressure to change. And so are their workers. Many of them are turning to community colleges to train for new jobs. As Dustin Dwyer reports from Michigan Radio, schools are having a tough time keeping up with demand.


DUSTIN DWYER: Jeff Pratt got out early. In December 2006, he decided it was time to leave his job at a Ford plant near Detroit. The company was cutting thousands of jobs and Pratt worried he might be asked to transfer out of state. He opted to take a buyout and pursue a new career. Pratt enrolled at nearby Monroe County Community College to study to be a nurse.

JEFF PRATT: It's a good job that's guaranteed. They're not downsizing anywhere for nurses, there's a shortage right now. So it's an in-demand place where we can live where we want to and there's no fear of having to relocate.

Michigan has been losing jobs, mostly in manufacturing, for seven straight years. But health care has been one of the bright spots. The sector has been growing so fast, hospitals can't find nurses fast enough. Plenty of people want to do the job. But there's a problem.

DAWN WETMORE: We don't have the resources to accommodate them.

Dawn Wetmore directs the nursing program at Monroe County Community College. She says a number of former autoworkers like Pratt have turned to nursing. Wetmore flips through some papers to see how many would-be nurses applied for training this year.

WETMORE: It looks like this year we had 204 qualified applicants for 40 seats in the fall.

That's an acceptance rate of less than 20 percent. If this were a four-year undergraduate program, U.S. News and World Report would rank it the 27th most competitive in the nation, higher than Georgetown or Duke. But the nursing program at Monroe County Community College isn't trying to maintain an elite status. The school simply can't afford to admit any more students.

Administrators say it costs about $400 per credit hour to educate a nurse at the school. Student tuition covers just 19 percent of that. The rest comes from the county, state and federal governments. And those funds aren't flowing like they used to.

GEORGE BOGGS: This is one of the great dilemmas that community colleges face.

George Boggs is head of the American Association of Community Colleges. He says the squeeze is no surprise because states, which are responsible for much of the funding for community colleges, usually do a terrible job preparing for bad economic times.

BOGGS: If revenues are up, they give tax cuts and spend the money, and then when revenues go down, they don't have the money to see them through the bad times.

So, Boggs says, even as community colleges face increased applications and Michigan employers beg for retrained workers, the schools have to cut back.

Monroe County Community College is actually one of the lucky schools. It will hire a new nursing instructor starting next semester. That means more students can be accepted. But the only reason the nursing program will get a new instructor is because another department at the college is losing one.

I'm Dustin Dwyer for Marketplace.

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