At first glance, the process seems to be working as intended. Students enter work force development programs looking to begin or jump-start a career. Many are sought after, recruited and leave with a job.
But in some cases, the offers come shortly after the students begin their programs, meaning that they haven’t had a chance to earn a certificate or associate degree. This, educators worry, prevents students from reaching their long term career goals.
And for colleges, the implications are far-reaching. Beyond the revenue impact of losing students mid-year without being able to replace them, certain programs end up with low completion rates. That gets the attention of college trustees and state legislators, who may threaten to shut down the programs.
Jan Bray, executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education, said an increasing number of the group’s members have expressed concern about the so-called “job out” trend in recent years. Because of the rising demand for skilled workers, particularly in technical fields, employers are plucking students from training programs with some frequency.
“Industry in our area is concerned with the bottom line -- getting the employees in when needed,” said David Hughes, associate vice president for technical education at National Park Community College, in Arkansas.
The question posed to Hughes and another two-year college president during a panel discussion at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce convention on education and the work force : Are businesses, with these hiring practices, undermining the efforts of community and technical colleges and cutting into the supply of highly trained workers?
Bray said the perception of some programs -- particularly in high-demand fields such as information technology -- has been hurt by early recruitment. In a 60-credit-hour program, it’s not uncommon now for only 25 percent of students to complete degree requirements. The high turnover rate complicates a college's operations, Bray said, and forces directors to justify their programs to trustees -- though they usually are able to make the case for keeping them.
“People crunch the numbers and it doesn’t look good,” she said. “Everyone has to understand the story beneath the facts and figures.”
Hughes, despite noting the “job out” trend, doesn’t blame companies. He said colleges need to respond by offering shorter certificate programs for students who feel pressure to earn more right away.
Bryan Albrecht, president of Gateway Technical College, in Wisconsin, said the college has done just that. It offers intensive employment training programs, most lasting several months, and it holds some classes at business sites to attract the evening student attending part time.
Several of his programs in the manufacturing field have been hit hard by the early raids. Up to 50 percent of students in a given cohort will leave before graduating -- many with job offers. Of those who “job out,” he estimates that about half end up eventually completing their program requirements.
Both Hughes and Albrecht said they try to make staying enrolled more attractive by allowing students to take paid internships or by setting up apprenticeships. And they said their colleges make a point of aligning their programs to fit the needs of the local work force -- which in many cases comes down to consulting with manufacturing companies.
The presidents say they understand that they simply will not hold on to some students. “It’s a difficult position for us to say that if you stay for two years you’ll get a better job when they can get a job for $20 an hour now,” Hughes said.
Still, the relationship between the colleges and local businesses can often seem one-sided, with the institutions consulting companies on course content and lab equipment and the companies taking some of the top students away before they finish a given program. But Albrecht said the parties hold more of a symbiotic relationship. For instance, if a business recruits two of his students away early, he will ask company officials to recommend or even find two candidates to replace them.
It's also give-and-take with faculty retention, he said. Colleges invest in labs only to lose faculty members to industry jobs. But he said colleges do plenty of recruiting at companies as well, searching for candidates to teach either part- or full-time.