October 26, 2011

Can Community Colleges Boost the U.S. Economy?

A Conversation with Joyce Malyn-Smith

Joyce Malyn-Smith spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator with the Boston Public Schools, starting out during the turbulent time of forced desegregation.

“Inner-city high school students are my favorite people,” she says. “I am, at heart, a teacher—helping people build their own capacities to succeed in life, school, and work.”

A Massachusetts native, Malyn-Smith was a U.S. Department of Education Fellow at Boston University in Bilingual Education Leadership and Career Development. She earned her master’s degree in education from Boston State Teachers College.

At EDC, she is principal investigator for the National Science Foundation’s ITEST Learning Resource Center, which engages students in grades 6–12 in STEM activities. She and her colleagues are looking at ways to support community colleges in training the new tech-savvy workforce.

“The economic downturn has focused more attention on the importance of work to family and community stability,” she says. “It’s made us all more aware of what it takes to get and keep a job. People who can apply what they know to perform tasks and solve problems in the workplace are simply more employable than people who cannot.”

To compete in the global marketplace, the United States needs more workers trained in the skills required for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. Community colleges have a critical role to play, says Joyce Malyn-Smith.

Is the United States falling behind in science and technology?

Joyce Malyn-SmithMany of our skilled scientists and engineers are moving toward retirement age. Fewer U.S. citizens are in the pipeline to fill those jobs, many of which can’t be filled by foreign workers because a security clearance is required. As a nation, our economic future depends on retaining leadership in technology and innovation. We want to continue to be the creators and designers of new products, systems, and solutions.

To retain our competitive advantage, we need to produce more professional and technical STEM workers able to use and leverage our highly sophisticated technology tools and systems to discover, create, and innovate. This is why K–12 programs such as NSF’s ITEST [Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers] are so important.

What role do these two-year community colleges play in career preparation?

Community colleges train the technicians and technologists who work with scientists and engineers to develop new ideas and solutions. For every scientist or engineer, there are seven technicians or technologists supporting that work. Community colleges train both technicians and technologists—the former to build, operate, and maintain the tools, equipment, and systems that support scientific discovery and innovation, and the latter to carry out scientific experiments and tests.

In addition to providing the core academic courses needed by most institutions of higher education, community colleges provide both degree programs that develop the skills and knowledge needed for employment in traditional and emerging careers that are now in demand, as well as non-degree programs that lead to industry certifications.

Community colleges also retrain and reskill the American workforce through customized training programs developed in collaboration with local industry. Community colleges aren’t just for recent high school graduates—the average student age is about 28.

What are the implications for those already in the workforce?

In addition to the scientists, engineers, technicians/technologists, and mathematicians that we normally think of in the STEM workforce, we also need to consider the rest of the workforce that should be “STEM-enabled.” These include, among others, the teachers, physicians, lawyers, airline traffic controllers, chefs, and transportation workers who use technology tools and need to understand scientific concepts to succeed at work. Community colleges provide the hands-on training and application practices that can help all workers become STEM-enabled and develop our nation’s capacity to use technology tools effectively.

Have perceptions about community colleges changed?

Community colleges are no longer regarded as places where high school graduates who can’t afford a four-year education go. In fact, some offer four-year programs now. Agreements between community colleges and four-year colleges are creating new career pathways. Enrollment is up: In 2008, 12.4 million students were enrolled in 1,167 community colleges. That’s 44 percent of all postsecondary students.

Community colleges are the workforce development engine of our economy. The Skills for America’s Future program announced by President Obama identified a new partnership with the National Manufacturing Institute to develop 500,000 cutting-edge manufacturing jobs in the United States. The Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services are investing in community colleges to develop programs to train workers in emerging occupations in IT [information technology], transportation, health, and other sectors.

Our future economic success lies in securing a leadership position in the “innovation economy.” We cannot do that without building a future workforce expert in using our technology tools and resources effectively to design, develop, create, and innovate new systems, products, and solutions. Community colleges play a critical role in developing that pipeline of talent.