Published on 2014/08/11

The Role of Colleges in Regional Economic Development

AUDIO | The Role of Colleges in Regional Economic Development
Through nimble program development and focus on building the workforce for emerging industries, colleges are key in supporting sustainable regional economic growth.

The following interview is with Jill Wakefield, chancellor of the Seattle Colleges District. Higher education institutions have always had a role to play in regional economic development and that role is becoming increasingly highlighted as the economy moves deeper into its recovery phase. In this interview, Wakefield discusses the role of colleges in supporting economic development and shares her thoughts on how this role will evolve over the next two decades.

1. How has the role of community colleges in supporting regional economic development evolved over the last decade?

The key to economic development and strong economies is a strong workforce. In 2008, our role was [helping] people get back to work. What we really wanted to do was help those who had lost their job move to the careers that had openings. We were able to direct a lot of folks into healthcare. Now as the economy is coming back stronger and stronger, we continue to hear from business and industry that a skilled workforce is critical if they’re going to grow or expand. They’re coming back to us now and saying, “We need graduates that have this set of skills, we need certificates here, we need to expand and can you help us find these qualified candidates?”

2. Is it a constant focus on finding new and emerging industries or is there an additional or equal focus on ensuring individuals can find work in locally booming industries as well?

It’s both, and what community colleges can do, and what we’re continuing to improve, is our alignment with employers and workforce development needs of our community. Whether you’re an established company or you’re a company coming in, training a skilled workforce is equally important. Since 90 percent of our attendees are local, what our focus often is on is just making sure the local residents have access to the great jobs that are increasing in our community.

3. How is the role of colleges differentiated from that of universities when it comes to regional economic development?

There is some overlap. For community colleges, the focus is on serving the communities in which we’re located. Ninety percent of our students live in our communities and come to our colleges to access the great jobs being created in their community.

We’re also known for being very nimble. For example, we’re working with a local ship builder [who] wanted to start a program to train welders in the ship-building industry. We were able to move from the idea to the first class in six months, and that includes building the facilities, hiring the faculty, developing the curriculum and recruiting the students.

We’re working really hard to make pathways to better jobs.

4. Looking to the future, how do you expect the role of colleges to continue changing over the next 20 years?

Our community colleges, businesses and cities will be more aligned than they ever have been, so when we see a shift of training needs, we’ll be ready to shift our programs to meet that new need.

The future is not just [about] learning the technology, but learning to learn with the evolution of the technology. As we look at workforce development and economic development, it’s a continuum. In the past, you could get a job with a high school diploma [but now] our economy demands a higher level of skills and education.

Also, over the next 20 years, you will see more competency-based programs, more online, more use of prior learning and more education outside the classroom. It’s the delivery systems that will change. They’ll also become much more individualized so students will be able to get the education and training they need for a specific assignment or  position.

5. What needs to be done to ensure that, at a minimum, college education is available to individuals that want to start a career? What must be done to ensure education is accessible to them?

There are a number of things we can do. We need to be really clear as to how the career system really works. You need to get the skills to get in the front door, then you need another set of skills to continue on your career. We’ve got to make sure we’re really transparent about what education and skills you need to get to where you want to go.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Colleges are critical to regional economic development efforts because they create programming that helps local graduates get training for jobs in emerging industries.
  • This role is contingent on colleges being clear that education is not a one-time experience for individuals; people need to continue learning over the course of their career to gain the skills necessary to remain successful in the workforce.

Readers Comments

Lorraine Williams 2014/08/11 at 12:11 pm

One strategy many municipalities have employed is to have key institutions sit on regional boards or at economic roundtables. My own experience sitting on a roundtable as the representative of a major employer in our city has shown that there is great value in embedding institutions that primarily serve local students into our region’s economic development plans. I have found our institutional partners to be willing to introduce new programs or credentials as required for our local economy. At the same time, we have benefitted from their research and subject matter expertise.

A. Cohen 2014/08/12 at 11:11 am

It’s great to read that some people, like the above commenter, have had good experiences with alignment. What I’ve found, however, is that many so-called partnerships between institutions and local economic stakeholders (businesses, governments) have been largely symbolic, with few on-the-ground impacts.

It seems the greatest challenge is that long-term planning means different things to each partner. While the economy moves quickly through cycles, institutions tend to navigate more cautiously through change. For example, by the time an institution has implemented a new certificate to respond to a market change, the trend is already halfway to becoming obsolete. Until we can reconcile these differing timelines and expectations, we won’t be truly aligned.

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