Additional investments by the state Legislature would be money well spent

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Each year, graduates from Big Bend Community College and Wenatchee Valley College land well-paying jobs or transfer to universities.

As two of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges, these colleges offer tuition savings and real-world training in North Central and Central Washington. Yet community and technical colleges receive the lowest level of state funding per full-time student in Washington.

Collectively, the state’s colleges are operating at 2007 funding levels. This is damaging to our students, our state economy, and our businesses that so desperately need qualified employees.

To meet the future needs of our students and communities, two-year colleges need an additional investment from the Washington Legislature.

Consider this: Of the 740,000 job openings in the next five years, more than half will require a college certificate or degree. Employers, meanwhile, are having a hard time finding skilled employees at the mid-level of education — more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree. Community and technical colleges meet both needs and industry demand.

A great example is the many degrees and certificates offered by BBCC and WVC that lead directly to employment in fields like accounting, agriculture, aviation maintenance, computer science, aerospace electronics, environmental systems, and health care.

Together, these two colleges, and the other community and technical colleges in our state, are poised to narrow a skills-gap in the aerospace industry, computer programming, agriculture and other fields. We train computer science employees, welders, electricians, engineering technicians, commercial drivers, accountants and nurses to meet industry needs.

We also help people who already have jobs stay up-to-date in their fields. In today’s typical manufacturing plant or fruit shed, for example, employees tend to work on a pristine shop floor surrounded by computers and robotic equipment. Where workers once used manual machines, today they use computerized equipment. Instead of pulling levers and pushing buttons, employees run machines from a screen. Current employees need to refresh and update their skills as much as college students need to learn them.

That’s why the community and technical college system is asking the Legislature for a 14 percent increase, $200 million, to its operating budget for all 34 colleges. The investment would help produce the diverse talent pool needed to fill thousands of jobs and grow Washington’s economy. These investments would ripple throughout North Central and Central Washington’s economy. And, without these funds, these two local resources will not be able to serve as effectively our communities, our students, and our local businesses.

Equally important, our colleges need to keep buildings and training facilities up to date.

Today’s budget for maintenance and construction projects at community and technical colleges is 48 percent lower than the recession-era budget.

The community and technical college system is also asking the Legislature to reinvest in capital construction projects so students learn in modern, well-maintained buildings.

The 25 projects on the request are listed in priority order. BBCC and WVC each have a project on this list.

Investments like these pay off many times over for Washington State. A new economic impact study shows that Washington’s community and technical colleges — including current and former students — add $20.5 billion to the state’s economy each year.

The single most important factor in job creation in Washington is the quality of our workforce, and nobody else trains the workforce like community and technical colleges.

Additional investments by the Legislature would be money well spent.

Terry Leas is the president of Big Bend Community College and Jim Richardson is the president of Wenatchee Valley College.

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