Memo from the US Economy to the Community College: We Need People...Now

In order to survive the pandemic and thrive long after it, community colleges need to seek partnerships with local employers and access government funding to provide their students with the learning they need to enter the workforce rapidly.

I was going to start this article with the words, “As our nation comes out of the pandemic,” but then I realized we have NOT come out of the pandemic. In fact, we are in the midst of a fourth surge!  There is a poetic and tragic symbolism here given that this fourth surge came from gatherings to celebrate the fourth of July–our independence from British rule. Well, we may be free from our friends on the other side of the pond, but we are not free from COVID-19.  Regrettably, I must start this article with the words, As our nation continues to buckle under the weight of the pandemic, we are seeing a disturbing trend; individuals who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID are now facing barriers to entry as it pertains to economic recovery in spite of an unparalleled increase in the number of job openings since the beginning of the year. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 850,000 new (non-agricultural) jobs created in the month of June, meaning there are over 3 million jobs going unfilled. Every industry sector is facing worker shortages that could threaten their economic recovery.  

If you are into contradictions, here is one for you: We are nowhere near full employment because the job participation rate has sunk. We have millions of potential workers sitting idle while the economy continues to produce jobs at a pace faster than a sprinter in 100-meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics. So, who is to blame for this paradox? No one. Is there a fix? Yep:  the community college.  

Here is the deal: The U.S. economy has sent a memo to the community college. The subject reads, “We need people…NOW!!!” However, I am not sure if the community college has read it. Either way, below is a suggested game plan for getting people (especially those facing barriers) into the workplace:

1. Go All In on Wrap-around Services

One of the reasons for low participation in the workplace and low college enrollment is a lack of childcare. If your community college has an early childcare center, you need to make sure that everyone and their cousin knows about it! Students who qualify for financial assistance through the Pell Grant should be allowed to have their children attend free of charge, which will enable them to acquire the skills they need, worry-free. Other wrap-around services include housing and utility subsidies, food cards, bus passes, clothing and digital resources (free laptops).  

2. Provide Opportunity for Youth

There are tens of thousands of young people not working and/or not pursuing an education. This group needs some educational TLC—training, life skills and counselling.  These youth check all of the boxes for those considered at-risk. Your community college should have a strategy to recruit and service this population.

3. Major in Microcredentialing

Your college should have accelerated programs that provide skills for the jobs that are available now and that are stackable. Here is an example: Run your CNA program (about 8-12 weeks), and provide a pathway for the student to get placed as a CNA, but also migrate into an LVN/RN educational pathway in the future.

4. Handle the COVID-Unemployed with Care

Another barrier to individuals entering the workforce has to do with the mental impact of this pandemic. The community college must integrate mental health services into its educational experience, providing counselling, therapy and a safe space for people to heal as well as learn.

5. Engage your Employers

Open the doors of the community college to employers, inviting them to come into classes or on your virtual platform to talk with students about employment opportunities. Also, for companies seeking employees on the cheap, inform them that the ship has sailed. In California, I tell employers, “If you can’t come in at $18 per hour, you are wasting your time.” But there’s an exception: If you are an employer offering 40 hours per week PLUS healthcare, then that is a different story. But the total compensation (health benefits included) should hit that $18-20 range as a minimum. In fact, there is one employer who we work with that has done just that, and they recently shared with us that they are having no problem finding people to fill their entry-level jobs, which brings us to the question, “Do we have a worker shortage, or do we have a living wage problem?” I know. You really want me to get into this question, but I plan to address it in our next article entitled, “Registered Apprenticeship Rx: How to Heal a K-shaped Economy.”  In the meantime, start with the above, and you should end with an increase in enrollment and a pipeline of graduates ready and willing to go to work. So, in reply to the memo issued by the U.S. economy, the community college might say:

Message received. Working on it. Seek partnerships from employers and funding from the government. Getting people into the workplace is a team effort. Count on us to do our part. 

Disclaimer: Embedded links in articles don’t represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service.

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