A man named Gerald Chertavian came by my office not long ago, and, by the time he left, I was filled with renewed appreciation for the potential of community colleges to help stem the decline of the middle class. There are few more urgent tasks.
Chertavian is not the president of a community college or even a teacher at one. Rather, he runs a program,Year Up, which he founded, that makes it possible for poor high school graduates to land good jobs. It does so, in part, by imparting important soft skills that the upper-middle-class take for granted, like how to interact with colleagues in an office setting.
A second aspect of the program involves teaching marketable skills in such areas as computer support, say, or back-office work at financial firms. These are called middle-skill jobs; they require more than a high school education but less than a four-year baccalaureate degree. Thirty years ago, said Chertavian, middle-skill jobs didn’t exist. “There were jobs that required a college degree, and jobs that didn’t. Now,” he said, “up to a third of all jobs are middle-skill jobs.” Almost universally, companies complain that they can’t find enough workers to fill those jobs.
As a result, Chertavian has had no trouble rounding up corporations like General Electric and Bank of America to give internships to his charges; if all goes well — and it usually does — they wind up with a well-paying job. The entry-level pay can be as much as $40,000 a year.
The trouble with programs like Chertavian’s is that they are akin to pebbles being thrown in the ocean. He has identified a sweet spot in the economy — matching motivated, but disadvantaged, young people with a genuine economic need. But Year Up, which operates in nine cities, can absorb only 1,400 students a year. What about the millions of others who don’t have access to a program like that? (Read more.)