New skills for new times
Laid-off workers go back to school, creating challenges for colleges
By ROSANNA TAMBURRI — The Globe and Mail – Feb. 4, 2009
Christina Kleinschmidt, 39, represents the new face of college students. Applications to community colleges across the country are surging as displaced workers and other mature students, facing grim economic prospects, are opting for a college education.
Ms. Kleinschmidt lost her job a little more than a year ago assembling trucks at Daimler AG’s Sterling Truck plant in St. Thomas, Ont., just south of London. After months of fruitlessly looking for work, Ms. Kleinschmidt enrolled in the electronic engineering technician program at the St. Thomas campus of London’s Fanshawe College.
“You feel like you’re banging your head against the wall,” sending out countless applications without getting any response, she says. Even her previous degree, a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of Western Ontario, didn’t seem to help.
Enrolling in the program made her feel like she was taking charge of her career and has given her hope of finding long-term, stable employment. The diploma she will receive after completing the 52-week program will qualify her to work as an electronic engineering technician or to apprentice as an industrial electrician.
“A college diploma or applied degree is a ticket to a job,” says James Knight, president of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, which represents 150 colleges and institutes across the country. “This is very attractive for people who have become unemployed.”
In Ontario, applications to the province’s 24 community colleges for programs starting in January jumped 10 per cent to 43,850 from 39,866 in the same month a year earlier, according to Colleges Ontario, a provincial association.
The increase was “considerably higher than normal for winter applications,” says Linda Franklin, Colleges Ontario president. In 2008, applications for the winter term increased 5 per cent from a year earlier.
The number of applications from mature or returning students rose 11.6 per cent in 2009, outpacing the increase in the number of high-school applicants, which rose 9.7 per cent. Demand was strongest for those programs that appear to offer job security even in tough economic times, such as police training, health care and early childhood education, among others. Ms. Franklin predicts that applications for September enrolment will also rise.
Fuelling the increase in part is a growing participation in the Ontario government’s Second Career program, which offers financial support, including paid tuition, for laid-off workers.
“We are going to have to figure out how to accommodate these people, particularly people who would love to train in high-demand programs that are already full,” Ms. Franklin says.
Fanshawe College admitted some 1,300 new students in January, up about 20 per cent from the same month a year earlier. Many of the applicants were like Ms. Kleinschmidt, mature students between 30 and 50 years old.
They also included participants in the Second Career program, says Howard Rundle, Fanshawe’s president.
Mr. Rundle says the trend that is occurring now is reminiscent of what happened during the prolonged recession in 1982. Then, too, college enrolment swelled along with the ranks of the unemployed. But, even in these tough economic times, he adds, there continues to be job opportunities for skilled workers in certain areas.
These include health care, some areas in manufacturing and information technology.
It’s the same story at Bow Valley College in Calgary. Bow Valley, which admits students year-round, has seen applications for programs starting in May reach 500 this year, up from 300 last year.
“I think the economy is a huge factor,” says Sharon Carry, president. She predicts that demand for college spots will continue to increase across Alberta as oil companies scale back new development projects or cancel them altogether.
But the influx of new students is starting to put a strain on colleges, many of which were already operating at capacity, says ACCC’s Mr. Knight.
“Even before this recession, many applicants to colleges were turned away,” he says. Ottawa’s Algonquin College turned away 6,000 qualified applicants last year, he notes, and the wait time for some trades in Manitoba was four years. “Now we have this [economic] downturn and the situation has gone from critical to impossible,” he adds.
To help colleges cope with the enrolment increase, Mr. Knight says governments should look for ways to increase capacity by whatever means possible in the short-term, including providing funds to keep colleges open evenings and on weekends and to rent facilities that can be quickly converted into classrooms.
But in the long-term, permanent capacity is needed, he says. The federal government pledged in the budget last week to spend a proposed $2-billion to expand and repair aging facilities at colleges and universities. The budget, which hasn’t been approved yet by Parliament, sets aside 30 per cent of the funds for colleges and the remainder for universities.
The budget also provides added funds to retrain laid-off workers, many of whom are likely to enroll in community colleges.
Colleges also need more operating funds from the province to accommodate the influx of students, adds Ms. Franklin. Operating grants aren’t keeping up with the cost of running colleges, she says. “I expect you’ll see more of this as time goes on and I expect you’ll see all kinds of measures, from program cutbacks to layoffs, if this isn’t addressed,” she says.
Colleges face other challenges too. Some employers, squeezed for cash, are taking fewer college apprentices. It’s also getting harder for colleges to fill some co-op placements, Ms. Franklin adds.
While the economic situation may seem bleak, the outlook for those with advanced skills remains optimistic, says Howard Rundle, Fanshawe president. “The recession will end and the boomers will start to retire and there will all kinds of opportunities,” he predicts. In the meantime, there’s probably no better time to be in college preparing for that, he says.