Community Colleges and the New Workforce Development Ecosystem
As the U.S. economy has evolved over the past few decades, the need for postsecondary education and training has become paramount to attaining a family wage job. Middle-skill jobs, those requiring some postsecondary education but not a four-year degree, are increasingly in demand. Accordingly, federal policy makers and funders have increasingly expected community colleges to play a stronger role in developing the skills of the U.S. workforce. Community colleges are under pressure to increase completion rates and more effectively serve students with educational and personal barriers while at the same time improving the engagement of employers to ensure that students are being trained for in-demand jobs. Nonetheless, given limited resources, community colleges cannot address the education and employment demands of a rapidly changing economy alone. To meet these increasing demands and better engage with employers, community colleges must be engaged in sector strategies, work with the local workforce system to develop comprehensive career pathway programs, and improve their relationships with agencies and community-based organizations well positioned to support the personal barriers faced by so many learners.
Sector strategies promote local industry growth and competitiveness by developing strategies across the workforce system to fill current job openings along with longer-term strategies to increase competitiveness and growth. A sectoral strategy is a systems approach to workforce development. Partnerships are created between community colleges, community-based organizations, labor, trade associations, and business and industry to a) improve the economic situation of workers, b) addresses and close the skills gap, and c) boost productivity and increase regional competitiveness. Sector strategies are designed to create lasting changes in the local labor market. As the local institution best equipped to educate and train workers, community colleges must make sure they have a seat at the table. For example, the Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partnership is a sector partnership made up of regional manufacturing companies in OH, KY and IN, education providers, and community organizations. The partnership brings together a diverse set of stakeholders to identify and meet the skills needs common to the manufacturers participating in the partnership with community colleges taking the lead in conducting the education and training. In MD, the Maryland MEP, Community College of Baltimore County, Baltimore County Public Schools, Baltimore Development Corporation, and the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development teamed up with more than ten employers to develop curriculum and programming in plastics processing. Both of these examples showcase the important role community colleges play in effective sector strategy initiatives.
Career pathways are designed to connect progressive levels of education and training, which helps individuals earn marketable credentials, engage in further education and employment, and achieve economic success. Accordingly, career pathways systems deeply engage employers in their design to ensure employment for students and workers. Combing this career pathway approach to education and training with sectoral strategies builds stronger partnerships between community colleges, the larger workforce system and leads to better employer engagement. A number of states have engaged in a career pathways systems approach in which technical curriculum is stacked in a way so that there are multiple entry and exit points along the pathway. Multiple entry and exit points allow learners access to education and training aligned with their skill level. Multiple exit points give students the opportunity to exit training along the pathway to pursue work and then re-enter to achieve successively higher levels of training. In Washington, I-BEST integrates basic skills education and ESL with professional-technical programs. In Minnesota, FastTRAC integrates basic skills and career and technical education along a continuum to help adults achieve success in high-demand careers. Oregon’s Career Pathways Initiative requires community colleges to develop stackable curricula that ensures that students are able to complete short-term certificate programs of less than one year that lead to either immediate employment in occupations in demand by employers, or provide a seamless “pathway” to the next level of a degree or certificate related to the occupation.
Finally, to address the personal barriers and challenges faced by so many students, community colleges must improve their partnerships with local community-based organizations. Nonprofits are well-equipped to provide case management and strong support systems to help students overcome barriers and challenges. Through high-quality education programming, providing a range of academic and non-academic support services, and employer engagement strategies to ensure the partnership meets the demands of local industries, these types of partnerships are able to leverage institutional capacities and resources to ensure student success. In Texas, Capital IDEA teamed up with Austin Community College to help low-skilled, low-wage adults receive the training and supportive services necessary to achieve jobs in the growing health care and semiconductor industries in the Austin area. In Chicago, Instituto del Progreso Latino teamed up with Wilbur Wright College to form Carreras en Salud, an initiative to help Latinos pursue careers in the health care industry. And in Westchester County, NY, Westchester Community College and Neighbors Link of Northern Westchester have developed a partnership to integrate English language learning with home companion curriculum. The college delivers the education and Neighbors Link provides the supportive services to provide new employment opportunities for the growing immigrant population in the county.
There is no doubt that engaging in any of these three strategies is time-intensive and requires commitment from all of the involved partners. Both a sector approach and a career pathway approach requires time, energy and college resources devoted to better understanding the local labor market and responding accordingly by changing curriculum and oftentimes college processes. Working with community-based organizations means that colleges must recognize their own strengths and recognize and validate the strengths of their partners and be willing to share and leverage resources. However, the positive outcomes of student success outweigh the intensity of the work creating community colleges better positioned to be leaders in preparing students for the new realities of the labor market.
Author Perspective: Association