Students in the heavy equipment operator program at Central Lakes College are getting true hands-on experience in an open field on the school's campus west of Staples.
Twenty-year-old Shane Downy is at the controls of a road grader. Downey, from Silver Bay, is in his third semester of this four-semester program.
"The left joystick here you got your front tire tilts and your gear selections," explains Downy. "And you have your notches here for reverse, neutral and forward."
When Downey graduates in the spring, he should have no trouble finding a job using the machinery he's mastering, especially if he's willing to travel. Students in the program say they hear stories of plentiful jobs out west, especially at oil and gas fields and in coal mines.
Demand for heavy equipment operators has softened in the wake of the housing construction downturn, according to instructor Andy Anderson. Even so 93 percent of their students still find work after graduation.
"The population is always growing, roads always wear out and buildings fall down," Anderson said. "So yeah, there's always going to be work in this industry."
Central Lakes College officials say their enrollment is up 16 percent this year. That increase is due in part to students in search of careers, like heavy equipment operation or nursing, that they hope will weather the economic downturn. The school also offer classes in law enforcement, accounting and other medical fields.
Overall, the Minnesota State Universities and Colleges system, which oversees the state's two year and four year colleges, saw a 3 percent increase in enrollment this year. The state's private colleges and the U of M essentially report flat enrollment over last year.
Central Lakes College enrollment dean Jeff Wig describes community colleges' enrollment numbers as counter cyclical to the economy.
"When the economy goes down, people tend to start being more concerned about their jobs, looking for more training opportunities, trying to look out and see what are the recession proof jobs that are out there that they could get training for," Wig said.
Wig expects to see more students looking for recession-proof jobs in coming months.
The economy is the reason some students were given a less than gentle push into the classroom.
"The economy, truly the economy. There was no work anymore," said Kathy Bell of St. Paul, who ran her own Twin Cities painting business for a decade. Last summer the work dried up.
Now she's studying biology at Century College in White Bear Lake. In a few years she hopes to find a job in the medical field, possibly working for a community clinic.
"It's challenging, and it's frightening," Bell said. "Taking that risk, it can be somewhat daunting, but I wouldn't rather be anywhere else right now."
Community colleges across the country are preparing for a rush of students just like Bell, who are either out of work or are interested in improving their skills during uncertain times.
But here's where there's an economic collision of sorts.
Just as community colleges are preparing to see higher enrollment because of the failing economy, they're being threatened with the potential for cuts in state aid.
That's according to Mike McPherson, a former president of Macalester College and president of the Spencer Foundation, a Chicago-based group dedicated to education research. "An ironic thing may be the supply of places, not even thinking about the money, but just the supply of classes," McPherson said. "The number of people who are available to teach, the ability of the school to maintain and expand it's enrollment in response to this increased demand, may be hurt."
Higher education officials in Minnesota aren't certain how the state's projected two-year, $5.25 billion deficit will play out for the state's community colleges.
But at least two schools are reaching out to people who may be in greatest need of education right now.
Normandale Community College in Bloomington is offering free tuition this spring for students who are eligible for unemployment insurance. Anoka-Ramsey Community College will cut tuition in half for those on unemployment.