By Tara Smith, Jobs for the Future

How can community colleges expand their impact on the workforce of the future? That was the question explored during a recent roundtable discussion with four leading voices from the industry, education, workforce development, and nonprofit sectors. They offered varied perspectives during a lively discussion facilitated by Amanda Ahlstrand, Employment and Training Administration’s Office of Workforce Investment Administrator, during the closing plenary the convening of Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grantees held in September in Washington DC.

The roundtable recommended community colleges embrace their mission of preparing people for the workforce. As articulated by Dr. Craig Herndon, Vice President for Workforce, Virginia Community College System, even if their long-term goal is a 4-year bachelor’s degree, the community college student of today, with an average age is 29, is typically in the workforce now and looking to the community college for help to advance within it. This call to embrace the community college mission highlighted four key points:

  1. Community colleges drive economic growth when they focus on preparing their students for the existing workforce. 
    As Dr. Herndon explained, in Virginia, the state’s leaders in economic and workforce development and at community colleges saw significant demand for non-degree credentials. In response, they took a bold step to establish a pay-for-performance incentive to encourage colleges to develop business-identified credentials in demand by local employers. Too often students were overlooking non-degree credentials because federal financial aid will not cover those programs, said Herndon. Under the new incentive, colleges are paid by the state when students complete a program and earn an externally validated credential. The pilot phase showed strong results, increasing the number on non-degree certificates awarded from 1,500 to 5,000 and raising average annual earnings for participating students by roughly $20,000. 
  2. Partnerships with employers are essential for shaping the middle skill workforce training programs offered by community colleges.
    Neil Ridley of the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce highlighted recent data that shows continued demand for middle skills jobs – those jobs requiring some postsecondary education or training but less than a bachelor’s degree. In his analysis, Ridley found that there is a shift towards “new collar” opportunities (such as the growing demand for skilled-service occupations in finance and health), including many without a bachelor’s degree. But he stressed that the labor demand is highly specific to the region, to the employer, and to the industry; that strong programs that prepare students for these opportunities can only be created through partnerships between community colleges and employers, like those driven by TAACCCT. Such partnerships are critical to ensuring that students and workers are being trained in career pathways that matter to the region.
  3. Apprenticeship programs foster real collaboration between employers and colleges to create win-win-win situations for all involved.
    The panelists agreed that apprenticeship, and other work-based learning models that require strong collaborations between employers and colleges, are essential for building the middle skills workforce in demand across industry sectors. Plenary participant William Mounts, Vice President for Operations at Omico Plastics, is a passionate believer in the apprenticeship model, having seen first-hand how apprentices have increased productivity and his company’s bottom line. As a leader of the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME), he has seen the powerful impact created by collaborations between employers and colleges. As Mounts explained “What employers used to do is put up a job posting, but that didn’t really work. This works. We attract motivated people, we invest in people, and they are committed, loyal workers…we recoup our expenses in three months based on productivity gains.” According to Mounts, word has spread and other Kentucky employers are working with their local community colleges to develop apprenticeship programs to build their workforces and provide real opportunities to workers in the region.
  4. Innovation must continue to define community colleges in the 21st Century.
    The rapid pace of change in the workplace means that it is more critical than ever for community colleges to embrace innovation and change, stressed Maria Flynn, CEO of Jobs for the Future. Flynn challenged the audience to consider how pilot programs and grant-funded initiatives like TAACCCT get translated into systematic reform efforts. She noted that community colleges today face a broad range of competitors, including venture capital funded training programs and for-profit institutions with ties to employers. How community colleges respond to these new models, particularly in developing deeper ties to industry and enhancing work-based learning opportunities, will be critical to their success, and the success of their students.

Listen to the full recording the TAACCCT plenary panel to hear all of what the panelist had to say!