A coalition of more than 40 business and civic groups is lining up to support Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to centralize oversight of the state’s community colleges.

A coalition of more than 40 business and civic groups is lining up to support Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to centralize oversight of the state’s community colleges.

Members said the Coalition for Community Colleges views the plan as a critical step toward addressing a growing gap between the education and training that job seekers have in Massachusetts and the skills employers say they need.

“We strongly assert that gap does not need to exist, at least not to that extent,” said Mary Jo Meisner, a vice president at the Boston Foundation, a coalition member. She and other coalition representatives recently met with an editorial board for GateHouse Media New England and Wicked Local.

With at least 45 members, the coalition includes Associated Industries of Massachusetts, several chambers of commerce, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the NAACP's New England conference and the Boys and Girls Club of Boston.

In his State of the Commonwealth address in January, Patrick said about 120,000 job openings sit unfilled in Massachusetts, at least partly because they require employees with specific skills.

There are an estimated 237,500 unemployed residents in the state, according to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Coalition representatives said more and more Bay State companies need employees with so-called “middle skills” – technical, analytical or scientific know-how that requires specialized training beyond high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.

“Every job is now going up in level,” said Ultan F. Feighery, president and business coach at the Human Resources Organization in Westborough. “There’s a huge gap in the skills at every level.”

Echoing Patrick’s argument, coalition members want to see the state’s 15 community colleges unified and focused more on working with Bay State employers to develop programs that deliver the skills needed in their local workforce.

“We currently lack the authority or ability to do that,” Meisner said.

The governor’s proposal would give the commissioner and Board of Higher Education expanded authority over funding and appointing leaders to community colleges, which largely run independently. His budget also includes additional funding available to colleges under a unified system.

Several community college presidents have questioned Patrick’s plan. Some pointed to successes they have had in rolling out new academic programs or developing job skills trainings with local employers, largely independently from state government.

They questioned how centralized control would improve anything.

Other college leaders have argued they may have a better handle on what local companies need than state leaders in Boston.

Presidents of two chambers of commerce in the coalition disagreed that Patrick's plan would interfere with good practices at colleges.

Robert Halpin, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, said a centralized system does not mean a top-down approach to community colleges. The problem is the current system lacks a strategic plan, he said.

A new system could operate similarly to the University of Massachusetts, where campuses have autonomy, but organized partnerships and initiatives, too, he said.

“It’s not as if anyone has (forced) a one-size-fits-all solution on the University of Massachusetts,” Halpin said.

Bonnie Biocchi, CEO of the MetroWest Chamber of commerce, described working well with Mass. Bay Community College in her region. But she said local employers still lack employees with certifications in lab tech work and other specialties.

Biocchi pointed to a partnership between Mount Wachusett Community College and biopharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb as an example of the type of partnership she hopes to see more of elsewhere.

Right now, colleges are sometimes intrigued by working more closely with companies, but are concerned about the costs of new programs or have difficulty envisioning the needs of an employer, Biocchi said.

Others are wary of focusing too narrowly on jobs at the expense of a broader education, coalition members said.

Meisner argued a renewed focus on job skills could help Massachusetts shore up a segment of its population that it is fast losing.

“We’re talking about the opportunity for a new middle class with these jobs,” she said.

(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or driley@wickedlocal.com.)