Sweeping help for workers

Most of us recognize education’s sweeping impact as an equalizer and door to opportunity for people of all backgrounds and economic status.

Most of us recognize education’s sweeping impact as an equalizer and door to opportunity for people of all backgrounds and economic status.

Fewer, however, recognize that when educational programs are sufficiently flexible and responsive, they can be targeted to resolve urgent and evolving community needs such as unemployment, illiteracy and employers’ ongoing demand for workers with new kinds of skills. The importance of such educational agility, in fact, was one of the fundamental reasons Washington state established its system of 34 community and technical colleges.

Our two-year colleges have responded by helping workers ‘retool’ for emerging industries and new skill requirements – with innovative programs.

A new height in ready response and targeted programs, however, has recently been reached. Washington’s community and technical colleges have joined other nimble responders in disaster relief efforts.

When it rains in King County it may not just pour but often flood to disastrous levels, sweeping away homes and, less visibly but just as painful, jobs as well.

King County is especially vulnerable. While one in 50 county residents live in a flood plain, about 1 in 16 jobs (65,000 total) are located there. King County has been declared a flooding disaster area every other year, on average, since at least 1990.

This month the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges took an important step into disaster relief by extending Worker Retraining assistance to people who lost their jobs or are suffering long-term reduction in earnings due to disastrous storm and flood damage of December.

Participants receive free tuition, planning assistance and other help to get them started on training for a new career in high-demand fields such as health care and information technology.

Today, economic storm clouds on the national horizon signal potential problems for our local economy. If and when that occurs, community college Worker Retraining programs will be ready to help laid-off workers and self-employed individuals who have been idled, along with “displaced” homemakers who suddenly find it necessary to enter the workforce.

Recently, retraining eligibility was extended in certain situations even to workers who are still employed but are vulnerable because their job is no longer in demand and they do not have the skills or credentials to survive in an over-crowded job market.

Flexibility and responsiveness from our schools, colleges and universities has become absolutely crucial in this time of headlong change. The constant, rapid emergence of new technologies, the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, the arrival of new neighbors from other lands, the rise of stiff global competition and, yes, natural disasters that are growing more damaging as our population expands numerically and geographically – all require rapid, innovative response from educators to help sustain the local economy and quality of life.

Public investment in all levels of education pays high economic and social returns. When that investment is made in responsive colleges that keep pace with mercurial change in their community’s educational needs, the results are immediate and tangible.

Jean Floten is president of Bellevue Community College.

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