WASHINGTON — With manufacturing jobs opening up in American cities, President Barack Obama has turned to community colleges to bring new workers up to speed , despite the government’s record of inefficiency in its job retraining efforts.

Obama’s latest attempt at solving the so-called skills-gap problem in the U.S. is the centerpiece of his 2013 education budget, called the “Community College to Career Fund.” The proposed $8 billion fund has the goal of helping some 2 million workers get access to job training through community colleges.

The Education and Labor departments would use the money to support state and community college partnerships with the private sector in fields such as healthcare, clean energy and high-tech manufacturing. An integral part of the community college plan would be the institution of a “pay-for-performance” incentive, meant to help trainees find permanent jobs.

Five proposals in Obama’s 2013 education budget:

  • $850 million for the Race to the Top program, which is a contest created to encourage innovation and reforms in K-12 education
  • $8 billion to promote collaboration between colleges and businesses training 2 million workers in high-growth industries
  • $260 million for science, technology, engineering and math programs in K-12 schools
  • $534 million for School Turnaround Grants to help states and districts turn around under performing schools
  • Increasing the maximum Pell grant award to $5,635

The role of community colleges in making workers more employable is not yet fully understood. But a study from the Labor Department in 2008 said job-retraining efforts might not increase wages or chances of employment for these newly-educated workers.

Some are leery about linking a successful student job search to funding for colleges. Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, said schools are “willing to be accountable, but they have many challenges that must be addressed.”

She cited a high percentage of students who need remedial math education as a challenge, as well as an overall decrease in state funding for higher education.

Some of the fiscal belt tightening by states and local governments limits the number of slots in community colleges, said Gary Burtless, senior fellow for the Brookings Institution. Burtless said adding money would allow more spots to open up at the two-year campuses. Community college placements are often in high demand during economic hard times  because people want to improve their credentials.

Unemployment stood at 8.3 percent at the close of February – the same rate as the month before.

Going back to the start of the recession in late 2008, about 15 percent of joblessness is due to a mismatch between job requirements and skills of job seekers, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s economic outlook.

Manufacturing companies cannot fill as many as 600,000 jobs because the applicant pool does not include enough skilled technological workers, according to an October survey from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. The poll of 1,123 executives at manufacturing companies revealed that 5 percent of current manufacturing jobs are unfilled. And 67 percent of those  surveyed said their companies have a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers.

Two million manufacturing job openings are anticipated nationally through 2018, mostly due to the retirement of baby boomers, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, went on a five-state tour last month promoting Obama's plan to have business and community colleges collaborate in job retraining. (Department of Labor website)

But adding $8 billion to community colleges is only a drop in the bucket, says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s education and workforce program. He said the U.S. is so far behind other countries in funding education that what it needs major reform, more than extra dollars.

Since “employability is the new goal in post-secondary education,” Carnavale said he supports using a system that would allow the government to track which post-secondary education programs actually lead to high-paying jobs. Then, money could be more efficiently allocated, he said.

“Information makes markets work better. That doesn’t cost $8 billion,” he said.

This is not the first time that Obama has proposed increasing federal funds going to community colleges. In his 2009 stimulus plan, there was $12 billion for training grants, later cut back to $2 billion by Congress. Obama’s jobs proposal last fall included $5 billion to help renovate community colleges.

Enrollment in community colleges increased by almost 25 percent during the last decade and now surpasses 6 million students, the American Institutes for Research reported.

But the federal government’s efforts in job training have  not always produced the number of jobs promised. An audit released in October found serious problems in a Labor Department program tasked with training workers for “green jobs” as part of the Obama’s stimulus bill.

For the purpose of training almost 125,000 workers, the department received $500 million, but by the end of June, just 26,000 workers had completed training and only 10 percent started new jobs, according to the U.S. Office of Inspector General.

The Government Accountability Office reported last January that the number of federal employment and retraining programs for dislocated workers has grown to 47, and almost all of them duplicate services already provided by other programs.

Little is known about the effectiveness of the employment and training programs because many programs cannot be directly linked to effectiveness, the GAO report said. About half the programs have not been reviewed for efficiency since 2004.

In October 2008, the Labor Department released the first assessment of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, its largest retraining effort. The law pays for dislocated workers and poor adults to go to school — often community colleges. The study found that among dislocated workers additional education did not mean the newly trained worker received better pay or even a greater chance of employment.

Nevertheless, Norma Kent believes community colleges have been strong in helping prepare workers for new jobs and new careers. She said the inefficiencies with the Workforce Investment Act sprang from the lack of input community colleges had in how funding was spent.

“Community colleges are known for keeping their ears to the ground,” Kent said. She said these colleges know the types of jobs that are available in their communities and are trying to tailor their programs to fit those needs.