Gene Bilodeau, Colorado Northwestern Community College vice-president of administration, recalled a conversation with a new student about the current job market.
The student, Bilodeau said, was enrolled at a four-year university in Colorado but moved back to his home in Craig to attend CNCC. The student realized he would make more money working at a power plant with a two-year degree, Bilodeau said.
"I know a lot of the power plant students, and many are locals who graduated a year or two years ago and are unsuccessful finding jobs or unhappy with the employment they've found," Bilodeau said. "So they move back home and go back to school here."
CNCC has seen about a 5-percent increase in enrollment, but officials expect to reach their goal of 6-percent growth by the end of the semester.
The power plant and auto technician programs, in particular, have seen significant growth.
The increase is because of increasing unemployment rates and people exploring new options for education and employment during the economic recession, school officials said.
Bilodeau said the dual enrollment program with Moffat County High School and several shorter programs during the semester are not included in the current enrollment count.
Community colleges across the state, however, have seen varying changes in enrollment.
"I know there was one college in Denver that saw increases in the 30s," Bilodeau said. "Most community colleges on the Front Range have seen enrollment increases of 19 percent over last year's numbers."
However, he said Northwest Colorado is somewhat insulated from the economic woes that have driven those numbers up.
"Typically, as the unemployment rate rises, more students come into the schools to increase their marketability, or because they don't have a job they decide to go to school," Bilodeau said. "In rural areas, we haven't really seen those unemployment rates. If people want to work in the Yampa Valley, they can usually find work."
However, the local work force now is looking for more educated employees, causing an increase in students in the power plant program.
"If you look at Tri-State, their work force has been there since the plant was built," Bilodeau said. "They have an aging work force that are getting ready for retirement. They need to replace those folks."
But there is an increased need for higher education even in specialized fields.
"What you hear consistently from employers is they're having a hard time finding people with a good work ethic," Bilodeau said. "More and more employers are looking for people to have some kind of post-high school education to give an indication of skills they will bring to the job."
Because of these needs for an educated work force, Bilodeau said the college is in a good position and is looking into the future of expanding the campus and building on-site student housing.
Bilodeau said plans for a new Craig campus are "full tilt ahead."
CNCC received $23 million in federal funds to complete a new academic building. It is currently in the design phase and Bilodeau said they hope to break ground before spring of 2010.
CNCC also has been running a major gift campaign to raise funds for a career and technical building.
Of the estimated $8.3 million estimated to complete the project, CNCC already has raised $7.1 million from local organizations, grants and businesses.
CNCC president John Boyd said the school has several solid programs that can give people a better shot in today's job market.
"We've got a quality education experience, and we have some excellent programs, like the power plant program," Boyd said. "We started out great this semester, and I feel really good about the year."