Despite the harsh economy and the 9 percent unemployment rate, there are lots of jobs available education officials and business leaders said Friday. The problem is the state’s colleges aren’t graduating enough people with the skills to fill them.

“We have jobs in the state available but we don’t have the requisite people to fill these positions,” Sen. Gary D. LeBeau, D-East Hartford and co-chairman of the legislature’s Commerce Committee, told the audience at Manchester Community College.

Peter Gioia, vice president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, agreed. If, for example, the machinist programs at community colleges “could be expanded 20-fold, all those people would immediately be snatched up” when they graduated, he said.

But there is little likelihood that the community colleges in the state can continue to grow without massive tuition hikes or increased state funding, said chancellor Marc Herzog.

“We are at capacity. We are having difficulty now just sustaining the current levels of enrollment,” he said during an interview.

Enrollment at community colleges has increased substantially for the last 12 years, surging from 39,000 in the fall of 1998 to 58,200 students at the start of this academic year. The 12 community colleges have nearly as many students enrolled as the University of Connecticut and Connecticut State University combined.

Even with this rapid growth in enrollment, Herzog said, businesses may leave the state if thousands more students do not graduate each year with skills to meet their workforce needs.

“Jobs go where the talent is. The jobs are not going to come or stay here unless the talent’s here,” he said.

A recent study released by Georgetown University says that 68 percent of the jobs in Connecticut will require a college education by 2018. But Herzog and other officials Friday said the state is on a path to fall far short of meeting businesses needs.

“Years ago a high school diploma could get you a job, a good job. Today, that is not the case,” said Lieutenant Gov. Nancy Wyman. “We need to prepare our students to enter the business world.”

But before Connecticut can start producing more college graduates, several speakers said the state must first tackle another issue: making sure students graduate from high school prepared for college in the first place.

Connecticut falls way behind the national average when it comes to the number of community college students requiring remedial courses when entering college, said David S. Baime from the American Association of Community Colleges. Nationwide, 60 percent of students that enroll in community colleges are required to take courses to learn things they should have picked up in high school. In Connecticut, 83 percent of students have to enroll in remedial courses, he said.

“They’re not ready for college,” he said. “You face a very real and very dramatic challenge.”

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, said she hopes community colleges will continue to grow, but added the state faces a massive deficit and may not be in a position to increase funding to subsidize community colleges increased costs.

“There’s not a lot of money to do anything right now,” she said, adding that fostering partnerships with businesses could help.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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