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Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon: The American Jobs Act Will Prepare Our Students for the Jobs of Tomorrow

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon recently concluded a statewide tour of community colleges and saw firsthand how the American Jobs Act would help modernize college facilities and prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.

Today, President Obama visited Eastfield College, a community college in Mesquite, Texas, where he delivered remarks urging Congress to pass the American Jobs Act to keep teachers in the classroom and rebuild schools across our nation.

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon reflects on her recent tour of community colleges in her state, and how the American Jobs Act will help strengthen schools and prepare students for future jobs across the nation.

When President Obama spoke about how the the American Jobs Act would help modernize our nation's community colleges, I immediately thought of two respiratory therapy students I met this week in Chicago. They lauded their school for having high-tech equipment used in a hospital setting, but said their computer-based lessons didn’t always work. The wireless internet connection was too spotty in their classrooms.

As Lt. Governor in President Obama’s home state of Illinois, I serve as the Governor’s point person on education reform. This year, I made it my mission to visit our 48 community colleges, from the biggest schools in the cities to the smallest schools on rural roads. I am learning what schools are doing to help more students attain a meaningful college certificate or degree, and what policymakers can do to ensure we train the best educated workforce in the country and in the world.

The tour confirmed what I've learned from my husband's 20 years of community college teaching. Community colleges are where it’s at -- in terms of accessibility, affordability and flexibility. They open their doors to people from all sorts of backgrounds and provide job training, two-year degrees and transfer credits at less than half the cost of universities. What is really special about these institutions is their relationships with local employers and their responsiveness to changes in our economy.

I have visited community colleges that installed wind turbines to provide clean energy for their campuses and training for the future workforce. Each semester, students can take apart, rebuild and maintain the turbines, skills they can translate directly to the expanding renewable energy field. And I’m impressed by the number of schools that can boast about 100 percent placement in nursing, welding, diesel mechanics and other skilled jobs here in Illinois, at a time when so many people are facing layoffs in other professions.

But the overwhelming message I receive from community colleges is that they can do even more. Many of our two-year colleges were built during the 1960s and 1970s and are in need of upgrades to train workers for jobs in 2011 and beyond. To build green energy programs, schools need money to invest in wind turbines and solar panels. To meet the demand for medical technician and nursing shortages, schools need to have the equipment being used in hospitals and clinics.

The American Jobs Act would commit $5 billion to repair and modernize community colleges. The money would pay for major classroom renovations, from plumbing upgrades to refurbishing science labs to increasing wireless access for students. It would fill a gap in our state resources and ensure these important institutions keep pace with the needs of employers. Regardless of our politics, we can agree on one thing: our workforce needs to be ready for the new economy. That is why I support the American Jobs Act. It will create construction and maintenance jobs now, and prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow. Let’s work together to pass it today.

Jewel James is the Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs