HOLYOKE, Mass. -- Richard Messier worked 25 years on an assembly line, fabricating steel and making air compressors. When foreign competition took his job 15 months ago, he knew those industries weren't coming back.
Messier enrolled in a community college to learn management skills. He'd need them to get a new job, and he wanted his next one to be better than his last.
"You get to be 47 years old, you really don't want to be working in structural steel," Messier says.
As globalization transforms the world economy, America's 1,200 community colleges are being asked to shoulder the primary burden of retraining workers like Messier. President Bush has visited several recently to highlight job training programs.
Messier's experience at Holyoke Community College in western Massachusetts reflects many of the virtues of the community college system, but also its challenges.
He has loved his teachers, loved learning again. But he has been frustrated by the bureaucratic maze he's been forced to navigate to find government funding, and it's unclear whether he will reach his goals.
Messier's coursework is at least temporarily on hold. Jobs are still tough to come by here, so when two opened up - including a temporary stint at his former company that offered benefits - he decided he had to take them. He hopes to finish his degree with an online program, but right now he is just too busy.
"I have kids in college, I own a home," Messier says. "I have to think not so much of myself, but getting money and benefits."
Enrollment in America's community colleges rose 38 percent between 1992 and 2002, and some 12 million people now attend at least part-time.
With its flexibility and efforts to accommodate all-comers, the system is unique in the world and one some countries hope to emulate. Champions say it opens doors, responding quickly to changes in local and national economic conditions. Many schools are building close relationships with industry.
But state budget cuts have reduced services and increased tuition. California's community college system estimates it turned away 175,000 students last year because of spending cuts.
"Every time there's a buyout or a consolidation, we see people coming in the door," says Johanna Wolff, who shepherds students through retraining programs for Holyoke Community College.
Some argue community colleges are unfocused, unsure of their mission. Should they concentrate on training younger students, or retraining older ones? What about people who already have a degree, but pay taxes to support the system and want a new skill?
Many community colleges "have tried to be all things to all people," says Paul Harrington, an economist with Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies. "They've taken the community side too seriously, and the college side not seriously enough."
A century ago, Holyoke was a prosperous paper manufacturing center. Today, it has the lowest per capita income in Massachusetts, with nearly a quarter of its families below the poverty line. The city school district is one of two declared "underperforming" by the state.
The college, however, is a source of pride, serving 6,500 students, many of them transferring to four-year schools. A new business center is under construction, and there are plans to develop a nearby office park for companies with ties to HCC. Nearly nine in 10 recent graduates responding to a school survey reported receiving excellent or good preparation.
In Holyoke classrooms, it's apparent that many of the "non-traditional" students - more than one-third are over 30 - are leaders.
"We know why we're here, and we know how important it is to get the information while we can," says Dave Bardsley, a 35-year-old computing technology student. His career as a machinist ended in 1999 when he was diagnosed with a degenerative disk disease.
Instructors say they know the technologies they teach may soon be outdated. So they teach students how to learn, by assigning research projects, for example.
And HCC almost obsessively caters to local employers. It customizes training programs on as little as two weeks notice. Advisory boards filled with practitioners review each program's curriculum. The veterinary technician program asks local employers to rate graduate hires on 85 separate skills, and adjusts coursework if necessary.
But some of the hurdles community colleges face also are apparent here. In one of Bardsley's classes, students are clearly at many different ability levels, and some seem to make little progress on a lab assignment.
"You teach to the best, and I help everyone else get up to their level," says teacher Casey Storozuk.
The sheer diversity - in age, race and educational background - can be overwhelming. More older students are seeking retraining, but the number of younger students, many from Holyoke's troubled school system, is rising even faster. Students of different ages have different priorities. Younger students, for instance, want more sports teams.
Money also is a relentless problem. HCC's funding from the state has fallen from $18 million to $14.6 million in recent years. "We're down in staff, up in students, and the cost per student is up as well," says Paul Raverta, HCC's interim president.
Administrators want to expand programs in growing fields like nursing, but for now, can only take 60 students per year.
"The hospitals want us to double it," says David Entin, vice president of academic affairs. "But who's going to pay for it?"
Even if there were money to hire more teachers, recruiting would be tough. Hospital nurses can earn $75,000 per year. Why would they teach for $38,000?
Some forms of aid to community colleges have increased considerably in the past decade, and Bush has proposed a $250 million job training grants program that would fund partnerships between community colleges and the public and private sectors.
But some critics say the president isn't backing up his verbal support. His budget request trims $300 million from the Perkins Vocational Education Program, a pipeline to community colleges, and could redirect some funds to secondary schools.
"He's giving with one hand, taking away with the other," says Jason Walsh of the group Workforce Alliance.
Does community colleges retraining work? Measurement is tricky, but a 1999 survey found substantial returns for associates degrees, and wage increases of 5 percent to 11 percent for those who earn at least a year's worth of community college credits. A 2002 study of Washington state data estimated a 9 percent bump for men and 13 percent for women.
But completing less than a year apparently has little effect. And Harrington, the Northeastern economist, says community colleges aren't doing much for those who haven't picked up basic skills in secondary schools.
Wolff says that's exactly what she sees at HCC.
"If you don't acquire good basic skills at the time in your life when you need to get them, it's very difficult to go back and get them," she says.
And even good training is no guarantee of a job.
In Martinsville, Va., an area that has lost thousands of textile jobs to foreign competition, Patrick Henry Community College President Max Wingett says many graduates must move elsewhere to find work applying their new skills.
Job prospects aren't much better in western Massachusetts. That's why Messier, the former assembly line worker with two children in college and another in high school, put his studies on hold when work came along.
"There's so many people out there looking for jobs," he says.
Messier doesn't regret his decision, and is confident he'll finish his degree. After struggling some to adjust to the company of younger students, he still carried a 3.9 GPA.
"You feel a little uncomfortable, but you do it because that's what you've got to do," he says. "There's nothing but good that can come from going back to school."