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Eight Forty-Eight

Community Colleges Try to Forecast Job Market

The federal government just committed $2 billion to help community colleges retrain unemployed workers for jobs of the future. But it's not easy for schools to predict what those jobs might be. In Chicago's northern suburbs, the College of Lake County is trying to do just that.

ambi: Sound of classroom.

A handful of students are adjusting parts on a small laser sitting on a desk in the front of the classroom.One student flips a switch a few times.

HINKLEY: I just put my name on my calculator.

And burns his name into the back of his plastic calculator. He shows Bill Kellerhals, the class instructor.

KELLERHALLS: There's no mistaking that.
HINKLEY: I burned it in pretty good.
KELLERHALLS: Yea, I'll say.
HINKLEY: Actually it didn't show, it didn't show and all of the sudden – it got hot enough was like woooh.
KELLERHALLS: That doesn't surprise me. ABS is a tougher plastic. 

Kellerhals is teaching tonight's class how to use lasers to make bar codes, labels or serial numbers.

KELLERHALLS: As the technology improves, it becomes much more cost effective to use a laser to mark on something - you don't have volatile inks that you have to worry about or haz-mats.   

Kellerhals says there's a need for LASER technicians. And some jobs pay close to 55 grand a year. That kind of salary would do a lot for student Steve OIeno. These classes are costing him about $2,400 this year.

OLENO: I was ineligible for financial aid so we used two credit cards and got on the installment program with the school and every month so much hits the card and we try to pay a little off.

Like most of the students here, Oleno has been unemployed for over a year.  

OLENO: I've got a Bachelors and a Masters and now I'm getting a little icing rose on my cake. Hopefully that will give me better odds.

Oleno isn't the only one weighing the odds. Gary Morgan is the dean at the college who decided the photonics program would be a good bet. If he's wrong, he could end up costing the school money and put a dent in its reputation. So - how does he decide?

MORGAN: You do it through research and risk...calculated risk.

Morgan counts on the state for data about workforce needs - but sometimes the timing is off.  Morgan remembers getting a report that there were tons of jobs in the construction industry… this arrived after building in the Chicago region had come to a standstill. 

So in the Fall of 2008 Morgan asked one of his professors—a guy named Steve Dulmas—to investigate a program in photonics.  

DULMAS: Gary said, 'OK, I need a paper that explains what this is.' You know, no one knew what photonics was, I didn't really know what photonics was. Dulmas liked that lasers and fiberoptics are used in a lot of different fields.   

DULMAS: Medical, defense, manufacturing, energy…that kind of thing. The next question really became – if we do this, what kind of jobs are available.

With the help of a consulting firm, Dulmas surveyed a hundred companies in the area that work with lasers. He found they employed hundreds laser technicians. And he found the nearest training center for these workers was over in Iowa.

DULMAS: That's was another thing that we need to bring that training locally and be able to service the companies in the area.

Last Fall, the College of lake County kicked off its photonics program. As far as these programs go, this one is expensive. So far it's cost about $250,000. That's being covered partly by the National Science Foundation and the state of Illinois. Morgan says this is key.

MORGAN: On any of those big ticket programs, we couldn't do it without federal or state dollars.

If the school gets a chunk of the new federal dollars earmarked for job training Morgan says he'd be able to order more equipment for the Photonics lab.

ambi: Sound of classroom.

The first batch of photonics students graduates later this month. And as they eye the job market everyone is reminded that this was all a big risk. The word is local laser tech companies have weathered the recession but they're not hiring full time workers just yet. Mainly they're offering paid internships and temp work. Student Steve Oleno says he'd take that. And Oleno says  he thinks that when things pick up  this certification will put him in an enviable position. 

OLENO: It's kind of applying for one job with three people in line instead of 3,000 people in line. So yea to me it's worth it.

Mostly Oleno just hopes to see a paycheck sometime soon.

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