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Gnage: Community colleges emphasize jobs

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The president of West Virginia University-Parkersburg has been named the chairwoman of the Association of American Community College's board of directors, and she sees some good things happening in the community and technical college system across the country.

Marie Foster Gnage is the first West Virginian to be elected chair of the AACC's board. And although her job at WVU-P keeps her busy, Gnage must also now make time for the many meetings and initiatives her new position entails. Gnage served as chair-elect last year before taking on the duties of chair this year.

"I serve on any committees, or any time there is an initiative, I usually am present to lend some support for those initiatives," Gnage said.

As chair, Gnage has participated in a roundtable on financial aid as well as a meeting to discuss veterans and challenges that population faces. Most recently, Gnage was a member of a 38-person commission that discussed the future of community colleges in the United States. A report came from that commission and included seven recommendations.

"That was part of my role as chair and chair-elect," Gnage said of the commission, "As chair, we are now implementing the recommendations and looking at those that were made."

Gnage had a lot to say on the future of community and technical colleges. West Virginia's own schools have made great strides in recent year, thanks in part, Gnage said, to the creation of a community and technical college system.

"Community colleges continuously review their portfolios of offerings to ensure they're aligned with what is needed by business and industry," Gnage said.

Better aligning programs to business needs was thing the commission addressed. Gnage said community colleges have always emphasized the need to match program offerings to business needs, but now schools are also looking at the types of jobs these students could get once they graduate.

"I think there has always been an emphasis on re-examining what is being offered as far as programs are concerned," Gnage said. "Even with this commission, there is a major emphasis on aligning what is needed by business and industry, by Marcellus Shale, by DuPont and chemical process companies — whatever they're needs are, we're trying to align with them and have programs that will prepare individuals for work with that industry. Whereas years before, you'd simply think we had a habit of looking at some of the programs we could have at community colleges, but we were not looking at whether or not the results would be jobs within our communities."

The AACC is also looking at completion rates. Although middle-skill jobs are available, getting credentialed is half the battle.

"We're now looking at how we get more people to a credential," Gnage said. "We need to get many more of our West Virginians to completion, to some kind of credential. That, too, is an emphasis. There's not a real difference in making sure you have programs and making sure the programs lead to jobs and completion. If you know you're going to get a job when you complete a program, you're more likely to complete. All of it is connected."

Now that the state has developed a community and technical college system, Gnage said students are ensured they can earn a degree in most fields, including some that previously required an apprenticeship rather than a degree.

"At one point, people would get out and learn the trade from the electrician or the plumber," Gnage said. "Now anymore there is a real need to actually give them the skills and provide credentialing for those skills. Having a community college system, what we did was put colleges in a better position address the needs of business and industry."