How Community Colleges Support the Local WorkforceRhonda Tracy | Former Chancellor, Kentucky Community and Technical College System
Meeting the needs of the workforce is historically the primary realm and responsibility of community colleges. The career pathway movement has brought new players to the field by blurring the boundaries, with secondary career and technical preparation at one end of the pathway continuum and comprehensive and research universities that extend learning at the other end. Community colleges, sandwiched in the middle of the pathway, reach down to secondary education and up to baccalaureate programs to link students to viable careers for the workforce, all while concurrently reaching out to business and industry.
The conversation about preparing students for jobs, however, is uneven and too frequently compartmentalized. Not everyone along the continuum agrees, for example, how workforce preparation is defined even with the honest, objective, contemporary examination of higher education currently underway. Missing are some very basic, simple steps that must be answered collectively if we are going to improve and build healthy relationships with the workforce in ways that are transformative, reformative, and informative. The following three steps are imperative for understanding community college support for the workforce.
Step 1: Agreeing on basic assumptions about the workforce.
What is meant by “workforce preparation?”
Preparation for the workforce should be the goal and outcome for every student, for every program of study, and for every education institution. Preparation for the workforce is not solely the province of community colleges and not solely the purview of technical and/or trade programs. Every program along the career pathway continuum from P-12 through graduate school prepares persons for the workforce and as such, must include an experiential component, a soft skills agenda, clear connections to the employers, and updated curriculum with business/industry input and engagement. The role of the community college in this sweeping approach is to serve as an example for how this is accomplished. Secondary as well as graduate programs can learn valuable lessons from community colleges.
What meant by the “local workforce?”
A geographical construct: First and foremost, every educational institution regardless of type has a local workforce. While it is usually understood that four-year universities have a more transient student body willing to relocate and community college students stay close to home, the local workforce needs remain geographically stable and usually do not change. For example, the workforce needs surrounding Louisville, KY are the same regardless of students’ attendance at Jefferson Community and Technical College (two-year), University of Louisville (research), Sullivan (for profit), or Bellarmine (private four-year). The workforce need is dictated by geography and the conversation should be how each institution–regardless of type–supports the local workforce.
An economic construct: The realization that each region is unique in its local workforce needs is paramount. The ability to deconstruct the economic needs as it relates to a job progression is important to determine how the needs will be met. For example, Louisville, KY is a major player in the healthcare arena. How is this manifested in terms of what contribution secondary schools can make (ex: LPN credential), what programs community colleges can add (ex: RN), and what programs four-years can build (ex: BSN, MSN)? It is important to plan and analyze what level of education is needed to meet the regional needs of the economic sector.
Step 2: Increasing Positive Impact with the Workforce
Once there is common understanding on what local workforce preparation means and how the conversation begins with community colleges but is much broader, it is time to ensure that best practices are being implemented. Some suggestions for practices with proven positive impact for a variety of educational levels are provided below.
Ask business and industry important, meaningful questions. For example, in Kentucky the community college system surveyed over 700 businesses to determine what they believed were the top soft skills students needed to be successful employees. This information was used to formulate a soft skills program. Additionally, businesses were surveyed to determine which licenses, credentials and assessments were recognized and relevant for specific occupations and this information was used to update assessments. Questions were relevant and timely and most importantly, informed later practices.
Higher education and business/industry do not speak the same language. At a recent meeting of business partners and higher education staff a series of acronyms were used during the conversation. At one point, it was evident that the understanding of basic concepts (in this case, regional institutional accreditation) was assumed by higher education staff but confusing to business and industry representatives. Common ground begins with common language, terms and understanding. Do not make assumptions.
Higher education has an advantage with business and industry; typically they are not competitors. As a result, sharing resources can be beneficial and efficient. Sharing can include staff (shared faculty positions); facilities (co-located training sites); materials (specific to a particular industry); and job placement (using current student population).
Step 3: Reviewing, Refining and Responding to Increase Relevancy
None of the above steps will work unless continuous attention is given to ensuring relevancy, which is a major concern business and industry has with higher education. For example, it was recently announced that a major international company would be relocating to northeastern Kentucky. To ensure the community college in the area would be a key player in this endeavor, the following occurred: a) the college reviewed their current programs to determine which would demands of the new industry; b) after review, refined a program and added a new program to better meet industry needs; and c) responded to immediate needs with a weekly planning meeting with the industry leaders. All of these practices ensured that the community college would increase and maintain its relevancy in meeting the needs of the new industry.
Community colleges play an important role in supporting the local business economy. It is imperative that the full spectrum of educational opportunities, from secondary to graduate school, are also included in the conversation to ensure the strength and relevancy of the pathways for meeting regional needs.