Rebooting Community Colleges to Get Americans Back to Work
In the early 1980s, roughly two thirds of American jobs were open to individuals with only a high school diploma; by 2019, two thirds of American jobs require more education beyond high school, according to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank and policy shop Opportunity America. Many jobs now require more education and skills than a high school diploma but not a four-year college degree.
Whatâs more, as the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated layoffs and accelerated the pace of digitalization of the workplace, it sharply increased the need for immediate upskilling of American workers to re-enter or remain in the workforce.
The nationâs 1,100 two-year community and technical colleges can be where traditional students gain the knowledge, skills and credentials they need to start careers and where non-traditional students learn new skills to maintain or improve their career prospects. But is a reboot necessary in order for them to better serve their students?
Community colleges across the nation have long held a number of primary missions: Graduate students who transfer to four-year colleges or universities (the credit side); graduate students with applied technical degrees and certificates (the credit side); and provide individuals with short-term job-focused upskilling to get them to a better job (the non-credit side). Many strive to fulfill these missions and there is room to align and improve the workforce outcomes of their students regardless of their pathway. According to Opportunity America data, close to 12 million students were enrolled in community colleges before the pandemic, with close to half enrolled in credit programs. Roughly 77 percent of students who enroll in credit courses expect to attain a bachelorâs degree but only 13 percent do.
This summer, Opportunity America released a report calling upon community colleges to reboot and place workforce education more at the center of their mission and culture and embrace their role as the nationâs premier provider of job-focused education and training.
The report, âThe Indispensable Institution â Reimagining Community College,â outlines the important role of community colleges can play in helping individuals adapt to the changes in the economy and upskill themselves in order to get back to work. Americans at all education levels will need to develop new skills and build on existing ones as they adjust to changes due to the greater use of technology in their workplaces or re-enter the workforce because of the COVID-19-driven shock to the labor market and economy.
In early December, Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, discussed how community colleges can live up to their promise of workforce education with Partnership Senior Vice President of Workforce Development Peter Beard during an UpSkill Works forum.
Jacoby highlighted the need for many community colleges to improve the workforce outcomes of their students by building better bridges between the credit division and the non-credit division of schools. This approach could help keep students looking for a job in the short-term from retaking courses or relearning skills if they want to return for a degree later in life. It can also help students who seek a bachelorâs degree prepare to enter the workforce. Jacoby also illuminated ways in which some community colleges could improve their offerings and programs, and with them, workforce outcomes, for non-credit students.
Employers and educators need to build meaningful partnerships with deep engagement. The non-credit divisions of community colleges can be nimbler and more responsive to the labor market and employer needs because the programs are designed with specific workforce outcomes in mind. Jacoby shared that the âsecret sauceâ is labor alignment, and programs cannot be aligned with employer needs without employer engagement.
âYou canât do job-focused education without the people who know the jobs. That is like a manufacturer creating a machine part without knowing [â¦] the specs for the rest of the machine,â Jacoby said.
Employers and educators share responsibility for effectively communicating with each other since both sides speak in different languages, come from different cultures and have different senses of time, she said.
This year, the Texas Senate Higher Education Committee took on the charge of examining existing innovative programs that assist non-traditional students in completing a degree or credential and considering methods the state could use to partner with higher education institutions to expand successful programs.
The development of San Jacinto Collegeâs LyondellBasell Center for Petrochemical, Engineering, and Technology Center, which opened in the fall of 2019, is one example of a Houston-area community college designing a program with significant input and guidance from employers to meet industry workforce needs and standards.
Employers need to explain their needs to faculty but also to guidance and career counselors. Jacoby encouraged employers to lend employees to educational institutions to serve as counselors to help students navigate to a job or career path to pursue.
Employers also need to be honest with colleges about the on-the-job performance of their graduates.
âWhen the graduates they hire have the skills, the colleges need to know. But when the graduates don't have skills, the colleges really need to know,â she said.
Ultimately, job placements, rather than enrollments, should be the primary metric for success, she said. She acknowledged the importance of community colleges in preparing students to transfer and earn bachelorâs degrees, but urged the schools to make sure those students, too, graduate with workplace skills including business communication, business math and some familiarity with the labor market and their career interests. Measuring success in terms of job placements would encourage community colleges to improve how they prepare students to navigate careers, she said.
But what of todayâs workforce and individuals displaced by the pandemic?
Jacoby warned that individuals who entered the workforce five or 10 or 20 years ago may have as little knowledge of the current labor market or what theyâre aiming for than a traditional student. Displaced adults need help in these areas, too, and donât find it at many community colleges.
Jacoby believes the less time a displaced worker stays out of the workforce (and the less time skills have to become stale), the better. The United States has not been particularly good at training displaced workers, she said, citing the lack of career navigation supports and meaningful partnerships between employers and training providers. Employers who anticipate layoffs can perform skills assessments for employees so they know how these skills could map to a different job or what type of training the employee needs to change jobs.
During an UpSkill Works forum in November, guest Matthew Daniel, principal consultant with Guild Education, shared ways employers could structure education programs to support upskilling to achieve better educational and skills development outcomes.
âAll jobs are going to change,â Jacoby said. âName a job. Itâs different than it was six, nine months ago and itâs going to be different in another nine months.â
Related:Â Higher Education Gains from its Role in the UpSkill Houston Collaboration
The UpSkill Houston initiative's UpSkill Works forum series engages business and community leaders, policy makers and leading thinkers on the key workforce issues our region and nation confront. View all pastÂ UpSkill Works Forums.