Filling the Middle-Skill Jobs Gap: Career Education Starts and Ends with Local EmployersSunita Cooke | Superintendent and President, MiraCosta Community College District
As a California Community College educator and administrator for more than 25 years, I find that it is a very exciting time in our evolution, as community colleges are being increasingly recognized for the critical role we can play in fueling the local economy and providing social mobility for our citizens. California Community Colleges are the largest provider of workforce training in the country, and the San Diego and Imperial Valley Region offers both short-term certificates and associate degrees in more than 175 occupations and educates more than 100,000 individuals each year in industry-specific workforce skills. While developing a trained workforce has always been a foundation of our colleges’ missions, California’s commitment of $248 million annually through its Strong Workforce program will allow each college to enhance career education by aligning programs with in-demand industry sectors, helping to fill middle-skill job gaps.
Middle-skill jobs, which require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree, make up the largest part of the labor market in California and the other 49 states. All too often, regional industries are unable to find enough sufficiently trained workers to fill these jobs. This skill gap keeps states’ economies from growing and employers from hiring. California Community Colleges are perfectly poised to fill this gap.
During my career, I have worked on meaningful economic and workforce development efforts at the local, regional and state levels. I’ve served in positions including College President, regional Strong Workforce leader for the San Diego and Imperial Region, and Chair of the California Task Force on Workforce, Job Creation and a Strong Economy. A robust relationship between community colleges and local industry partners is the foundation for strong workforce development programs that prepare students for specific middle-skill jobs in each region.
In San Diego County, middle-skill jobs constitute a significant and growing portion of the labor market. In 2017, 38 percent of the jobs were middle-skill, according to a study published last month by the San Diego-Imperial Center of Excellence for Labor Market Research (COE).
Demand for these jobs will continue, with the number of middle-skill jobs in the region projected to increase by nearly seven percent between 2017 and 2022.
Not only are middle-skill jobs in demand, they are also well paying positions with opportunities for income mobility. While the average median hourly wage of all jobs in the region is $19.30 (or $40k annually), the COE study found in San Diego County, workers in the top 100 middle-skill jobs earn a median hourly wage of $26.70 (or $55.5k annually)—nearly twice as much as the Self-Sufficiency Standard. The average middle skill job pays $22.10.
To effectively meet the regional demand for middle-skill workers, career education begins and ends with employers. In the San Diego and Imperial Valley Region, we have strong relationships between our community colleges and local employers. Industry input is invaluable for planning and technological innovation, and provides an up-to-date awareness of the needs and expectations of employers. These relationships also afford students at our region’s 10 community colleges internship and apprenticeship opportunities with employers, mentorships from professionals, interactive labs, and other work experience forged through each college partnership. From aligning programs with regional job openings to understanding the skill set required for job placement, local business partnerships are the key to successfully linking students to job openings and supporting the regional economy.
Each career education program also benefits from the insights of industry advisory committees made up of business professionals who work in the field and college faculty that help shape the educational process to train the workforce. Together we work to ensure that college training programs meet industry needs. Advisory committee members also identify current and emerging technologies and often help our college districts by donating equipment for training.
By providing work-based learning opportunities, career education students spend less time in the classroom and more time in hands-on learning environments. These opportunities in the work environment and interactions with industry professionals enhance the classroom and lab experience, and often help graduates gain employment.
Our community colleges also provide students access to a wide network of potential employers through valuable faculty relationships, and a coordinated regional employer engagement model. Career education faculty have vast experience in their fields, along with a wealth of contacts in their respective industries. Both instructors and campus career center staff use these relationships to place students in positions of employment, helping them to satisfy course requirements and gain real-world experience to add to their resumes.
There is no doubt our community college-industry partnerships are paying off for students. According to Launchboard, a statewide data system for all California Community Colleges, 71 percent of career education students in the San Diego region who complete a program are employed one year after finishing.
At the intersection of higher education, regional economies and workforce development, community colleges are poised to successfully fill the job gaps and, more importantly, make a real and positive difference ensuring all members of our community are productive in the thriving regional economy.