SPRINGFIELD — U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, announced Wednesday two grants for science, technology, engineering and math-centered programs at Springfield Technical Community College totaling $7.35 million.
Both grants are over five years and both focus on recruiting and retaining through graduation Hispanic and low income students in STEM fields by meeting challenges like transportation, student support, child care, said Lara Sharp, dean of the college’s school of STEM The money will go toward hiring staff and in partnering on transfer programs to four-year degrees at the University of Massachusetts Amherst , Central Connecticut State University and elsewhere.
Some of the money will be used to create a first-year STEM-focused experience course so students can explore the field. There will be proactive STEM advisors bringing services to students first.
Neal, in his remarks, recalled speaking at a STCC commencement when a graduating student said it took 10 years for her to finish her degree.
“I wanted to stand up and cheer for her,” Neal said. “There are many challenges economically that accompany community college,” Neal said. “We have to take recognition of that.”
Neal is chairman of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means and he said Wednesday’s announcement is linked to the bills slowly taking shape in Washington that will further President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda.
Biden, earlier in the year, had pushed for free community college as part of the $3.5 trillion package of social investments accompanying the $1 trillion road-bridge-train infrastructure package.
Neal, fresh from a Tuesday afternoon conference call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats, said the task now is paring down the skills to meet with the approval of the entire Democratic caucus which makes up only a slim majority.
Biden proposed free community college at his State of the Union.
“But if it doesn’t become free community college, we don’t know that it will be . What it certainly will become is more money for community colleges to do skills training. That is something we all agree with,” Neal said.
He said he’s against cutting the bills across the board.
“I’m in favor of doing a few things really well,” Neal said .”There will always be time to come back later and achieve other goals.”
But the social spending is just as important as roads and bridges, Neal said , citing the child care and family leave policies.
He said the new unemployment numbers due out Friday will show about 11 million unfilled jobs, largely because people are held out of the workforce.
He praised STCC for providing training necessary for in-demand jobs, explaining how he and his staff have made connections between the college and employers across the district.
“And let’s get some women in some of these jobs,” Neal said.
Sharp said STEM subjects include the advance manufacturing ab where the college hosted the announcement, but also subjects like design and media.
The manufacturing program at STCC has 120 students now who all get jobs after training and there are spots unfilled in classes and labs, said John LaFrancis, professor and head of the program.
LaFrancis led Neal and other elected officials on a tour of the program and its facilities.
Neal observed that one local manufacturer advertised for precision manufacturing hellp before the start of Tuesday night’s Yankees-Red Sox playoff game, an expensive bit of time that illustrates the demand.
LaFrancis said graduates can get jobs making $60,000 or more a year and STCC also works with local manufacturers, like the Stanley Black & Decker plant in East Longmeadow right now, to train the incumbent workforce.