PITTSBURGH (AP) — For the past 23 years, Larry Plowman fixed everything from electric arc furnaces to overhead cranes to assembly lines. Now he's learning how to break criminal cases using computers and the Internet.
Plowman is among a growing number of laid-off workers seeking a second career with the help of community colleges, schools that have evolved from their "junior college" beginnings into mainstays of America's work force.
"I started looking to see what other things I could do. Having a heavy industry and steel background, there wasn't much out there," said Plowman, 56, back in school after being laid off from his second manufacturing job in as many years in December.
The sour economy has sent more students to community colleges across the country. Some schools like Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania and Gloucester County College in New Jersey report double-digit enrollment increases. Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa., Des Moines Area Community College in Iowa and Lower Columbia Community College in Washington say enrollments are at an all-time high.
The surge is particularly apparent in industrial areas. Factories trimmed 95,000 jobs last month, the 33rd month of declines that have cost 2.2 million workers their jobs.
"We've felt the ripple effect of the layoffs. This is the biggest layoff the area has seen in many, many years," said Sheree Utash, vice president for academic and student affairs at Cowley County Community College in Kansas. "It's driving more and more people to go back to school."
In Wichita, which bills itself the "Air Capital of Kansas," aircraft manufacturers have announced 12,000 layoffs, the consequences of a sharp drop in air travel. The job cuts have contributed to soaring enrollment at the community college, up 16 percent from last year at about 4,000 students.
From their start in a Chicago high school with six students in 1901, community colleges have undergone a metamorphosis, adding vocational training, noncredit courses and certifications, and, more recently, holding job fairs and contracting with companies to train workers.
Now, about half of the more than 10 million students who attend the nation's 1,150 community colleges each year go for job training rather than degrees, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
To meet demand, the colleges constantly reshuffle courses; computer courses may give way to cooking or retail management to radiology. Each year, the American Association of Community Colleges publishes a list of "hot" careers; health and computer-related workers are currently at the top.
Administrators at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez, Miss., are considering more afternoon and evening classes and more short-term training courses to counter a string of plant closings, from Fidelity Tire to Ethyl Petroleum to the pending shutdown of an International Paper plant, the area's largest employer.
Two weeks after Maytag Corp. announced a partnership with Daewoo Electronics to make its top freezer-refrigerators, administrators at Des Moines Area Community College are trying to help the 1,600 people who will lose their jobs in Iowa and neighboring Illinois. Des Moines plans to shift a program to train workers for Maytag and train people to work for John Deere, which has weathered the downturn fairly well, said Donovan Honnold, a college spokesman.
In Cowlitz County, Wash., which has the third-highest unemployment rate in the state, 10 percent, following cuts in the lumber industry and an aluminum plant bankruptcy, enrollment has risen at Lower Columbia Community College.
The number of people receiving financial aid through the school after losing their jobs has almost tripled in the past two years to 339 students. Nursing has grown so popular there's a 100-student waiting list for the 24 seats the college offers each semester.
"In Washington and a lot of other states, they have recognized these skills gaps. It takes a while to get these training programs in place," said Brendan Glaser, director of work force education and the college.
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