January 24, 2012

Community Colleges Tackle Workforce Gaps

The baby boomer generation redefined the American jobs landscape, creating new business opportunities and flooding the mechanical, technical, and engineering fields with talent.

But the impending retirement of much of this workforce over the next decade is expected to create a new jobs crisis in the United States. Simply put, there are not enough workers who are skilled in these fields—especially the so-called “middle skill” professions, which require some postsecondary education but not necessarily a four-year bachelor’s degree—to offset the numbers of retirees.

This is not a short-term problem, either. For example, according to a 2008 report published by the Council on Competitiveness, 200,000 electric power workers will retire by 2018, and the retirement rate of maintenance workers exceeds the rate at which new workers enter the profession.

Community colleges are seen as an important piece of this employment puzzle, offering a work-oriented program with practical skills-based courses that help to usher new, young talent into these fields, while also offering retraining opportunities for workers who are looking to switch careers. And with President Obama’s Community College and Career Training initiative, which awarded close to $500 million to community colleges for workforce development-related programs, the profile of these schools has certainly been raised.

Over the past year, EDC’s Ron Israel has brought together EDC staff and community college administrators to explore possible partnerships around the issue of workforce development. His goal is to promote EDC’s long-standing expertise in workforce development.

According to Israel, community colleges should be at the forefront of postsecondary efforts to prepare students for the workforce, especially with the looming dearth of experienced workers. “Many students do not intend to complete a standard two-year associate’s degree, but are increasingly drawn to programs that grant a specific workforce credential in areas such as solar technology or clean water management,” says Israel.

Joyce Malyn-Smith is an expert in the field of workforce development. She has spent the better part of her EDC career working with the business community to identify emerging occupations and new skill sets required of workers in existing occupations.

“We have strategies to help community colleges ensure that their curriculum includes employer expectations for new skills and performance requirements,” says Malyn-Smith. She emphasizes that just teaching these new skills is not enough—there also has to be demand for these skills in the local economy.

“What other part of the school system has, as its primary goal, to get people to successfully transition into the workplace?” Malyn-Smith continues. “Colleges don’t do that; their primary goal is to award students a degree. Traditionally, high schools don’t do that; their primary goal is to get students into college. Only recently have high schools begun embracing a ‘pathways to college and careers’ mantra. It’s the community college that is focused primarily on transitions to work, and will be at the forefront of the workforce conversation for years to come.”

Community colleges are ideally positioned to move people into careers that keep the country’s technology and medical infrastructure operating. For the past two years, EDC’s Lois Joy has been researching the ways in which community colleges are supporting women who want to enter these types of careers.

“These programs have a lot of potential, especially since these are fields where women have historically been underrepresented,” says Joy. “Many times, community colleges are the schools that prepare disadvantaged women for careers that could help them get out of poverty.”

Sometimes the largest barrier to success is a lack of resources. As an example, she points to a popular two-year program in diagnostic medical sonography that is offered by a local community college. Its acceptance rate is a meager 5 percent—not because the applicants are not qualified, but because there are not enough instructors to cope with the high demand. “This shows there is untapped potential there,” she says.

Israel believes that the next decade will see a lot of changes in the community college system, and that EDC will play a role in leading these transformations. “Community colleges somehow have to find a way to redefine themselves because they can’t continue to be all things to all people,” he says. “This is one of the most important issues in American education.”