Six Ways Colleges Can Think Differently to Meet the Workforce Needs in America
Thinking differently doesn’t come easily to higher education institutions. There are decades of tradition to overcome and campus interests that favor preserving the way things are now. But if colleges want to be relevant in the 21st-century economy and have their students thrive in the workforce, they’ll need to change the way they think.
Change is never easy, but it is possible. As Executive Vice Chancellor of Workforce & Digital Futures for California Community Colleges, I’ve been able to usher in a “renaissance” of the workforce mission of the largest higher education system in the country. Some call it a turnaround.
I’ve grown our public investments from $100 million to $1 billion in seven years for the 115 community colleges in our system. Workforce went from an afterthought to a policy priority in California, which is now the fifth largest economy in the world.
Thinking differently was essential to our success. It also led to the creation of Doing What MATTERS for Jobs and the Economy, with the goals of developing skilled workers to fuel a strong economy and improving workforce outcomes for California’s 2.1 million community college students.
Since my appointment by California’s governor in 2011, I’ve led our institutions through change while fostering a culture of experimentation, innovation and collaboration. Along the way, I’ve learned that colleges need to think differently about these issues in order to tackle the country’s workforce needs.
1. No one institution can solve all the workforce gaps alone. Regional coalitions do better.
Colleges can do many things within their footprint, but the needs of students are sometimes greater than the resources available at any local campus. Students are hungry, and an estimated half of all college students struggle with food insecurity. This has resulted in the need to call on local food shelters to come onto campuses.
Industries have skills gaps that no one campus can deliver on because of all the specializations needed. Case in point: Hospitals face shortages ranging from nurses to sonographers to radiology technicians, but training for each occupation is pricey given the specialty equipment required.
Adopting a regional lens in California helped us find new partners and resources to help solve some of these issues.
The federally-funded America’s Job Centers and the USDA SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Employment & Training Programs provided workforce development resources across every college community that were especially helpful to vulnerable segments of the community.
Collaboration and coordination among and across many organizations is key to a successful student journey. This lesson applies to colleges too, especially in geographies where colleges are densely located like they are in Los Angeles. The old way of thinking was to compete with each other. But the regional collaboration I championed resulted in the recently announced Amazon Web Services partnership with 19 LA County community colleges, which will address cloud computing skills.
2. Consider education and training as a booster shot… not a one-time inoculation.
The majority of students are no longer just recent high school graduates. In fact, 74 percent of undergrads are characterized as non-traditional students. One in five is at least 30 years old and 47 percent go to school part time at some point, according to data from NPR and RTI International, a think tank in North Carolina.
In our community colleges, we see firsthand that non-traditional students sometimes attend school part time or are employed full time while completing their studies. Simultaneously, adults across the workforce increasingly need skilling, reskilling and upskilling to retain, find and advance at work.
Few colleges are currently set up to deliver the affordable, convenient quality learning experience demanded by adults and working students. Higher education needs to lean in and redesign the student journey for these non-traditional students who are the new normal. And as a society, we need to make getting a skill upgrade—whether you’re 24 or 50—and becoming lifelong learners part of the new normal.
3. Staying current means partnering with employers.
Students want to have confidence in their value to the labor market for many reasons, including the significant debt they’ve acquired through the course of learning. The average student loan debt for the class of 2016 is $37,000, and nearly one million people default on their student loans each year. Students are looking to employers to provide affirmation that they’re on the right path and to colleges to create career-ready education. The only way this will happen is if higher education and employers start communicating and collaborating.
Globalization and digitization are transforming business and workforce needs at an increasingly rapid pace. Colleges need to talk in earnest with employers to understand what they value and align their curriculum with what employers need. In order to stay current, higher education needs to improve workforce outcomes for students and fuel a strong economy.
At the California Community Colleges, we prioritized which industry sectors drove each regional economy as a foundational decision for aligning programs with labor market needs. Based on this prioritization, Strong Workforce Program resources were made available to ensure “more and better” career education.
For example, advisors in the energy, construction & utility industry gathered and pinpointed the HVACR (heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration) Excellence credential as being most valued within the industry. At the time, there were also 1,261 job openings projected across the state, while supply from all our colleges was only 393.
Faculty at our colleges that offered training in this area were invited to have their curriculum cross-walked against the competencies outlined in HVACR Excellence. Five accepted and found gaps. Faculty found a common basis for closing curriculum gaps and decided to work together on outreach and production to enlarge the talent pool.
4. Students want higher education to solve the employment dilemma.
After earning their degree or certificate, the majority of students want to successfully enter the job market, but often need help landing that first job. They need more than just a career center and resume assistance. Colleges need to provide internship programs, work-study co-ops and apprenticeships that are all models of “real world” labs. This offers students the opportunity to gain work experience and differentiate themselves from the plethora of entry-level candidates.
These models for experiential learning allow students to apply technical and much-needed digital skills. They’re also particularly helpful in enabling students to practice soft skills such as teamwork, communication and cultural competency while gaining exposure to the norms of the workplace, like showing up on time.
Our California Apprenticeship Initiative grants expanded apprenticeships from their traditional use in the construction industry into new and emerging industries. We made investments in biotech, healthcare, early childhood education and more because we know apprenticeships are a reliable way to build a strong workforce.
Germany, Switzerland and Canada have intentionally designed these experiences into a student’s educational journey, while many colleges in the US leave employment to happenstance. Colleges must think differently so we can help our students adapt to the changing job market. For a better understanding of the employment dilemma, I highly recommend Ryan Craig’s thought-provoking new book, A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College.
5. Students are going to demand personalization in their educational experience.
In the era of Netflix and Amazon Prime, we increasingly want and expect everything to be personalized. One generation from now, students will want their educational journey styled the same way. We’re already hearing from students who are “digital natives” that want colleges to change to meet their needs.
Students will want courses that are relevant to them, and that don’t repeat what they already know. They’ll want support services specific to their personal circumstance, recommendations for student clubs and activities based on their interest profile, and readily available classes, at times and in formats that work for their schedule.
Colleges must be ready for students to unbundle and rebundle to meet their needs as the nation’s technology infrastructure allows for more options. Start upgrading your college’s digital infrastructure now so you’re ready to serve this new generation.
6. AI and machine learning will shift skill sets in the future of work.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is already here, and for those of us who use Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant, AI is part of our daily lives. Most of us are attached to our mobile devices and rely on them to map our drives, record our tasks and search for information. As AI and machine learning become more sophisticated and able to perform more complex actions, skillsets for humans to work alongside the machines (robots, computers and devices) or to work within the machine (virtual environments) will evolve.
Rote memorization will be less in demand. Instead, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication (the 4 Cs) skills will matter even more. My investment to seed 24 community college makerspace learning environments (CCC Maker) and the New World of Work 21st Century Skills anticipates that the 4 Cs skills will give students resiliency in the future of work.
Author Perspective: Administrator
Author Perspective: Community College