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Hard lessons learned from the economic recession

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Commentary
Jim Jacobs
The Great Recession has taught workforce development practitioners at community colleges a great deal. Never before has this core mission strand of our institutions been tested at this level, as we’ve faced the worst employment conditions since the Great Depression.
 
On the advent of an economic recovery, it is time to take stock of our new realities, highlighting effective and creative community college responses. Two-year colleges face three important workforce trends. First and foremost, there has been a significant loss of traditional, well-paying jobs. Outsourcing, the decline of unions and the severe economic contraction of the Great Recession have resulted in a painful fact: There are not enough full-time sustainable jobs for our students.
 
Even in growing economic sectors such as allied health, demand is starting to wane as there are fewer turnovers. And, while there were high hopes for new “green jobs,” most of that growth is still in the future and dependent on public policy changes in the energy sector.
 
Second, of the good jobs available for younger workers fresh out of school, there is an increasing demand for more postsecondary education, especially four-year degrees for entry-level work. Workplace experience is always important in any job search, but increasingly, employers are using degrees as a baseline requirement for hiring entry-level workers.
 
For example, in the late 1990s, community college students could find entry-level work in information technology after completing a few key classes and earning industry-issued credentials. However, today a bachelor’s degree is often the minimum educational requirement. Even in sectors dominated by community college degree holders—such as many allied health fields—employers are favoring four-year degree holders.
 
Third, for both dislocated and incumbent workers, there is a need to master not only occupational skills, but also to continually update these skills. Training, which was once viewed as the employer’s responsibility, is now an individual’s responsibility. Employees are expected to keep up in their fields, and those looking for work are expected to be already trained—producing a large expansion of short-term non-credit training.
 
Many of these classes are being driven by the specific needs of sectors, and it is possible that these may evolve into a form of industry-specific credentials. However, successfully completing these short-term courses requires postsecondary skills in communications, mathematics and science, frequently presenting challenges for older workers.
 
Developing workforce demands
 
Community colleges have responded by redefining the scope of workforce development. While our focus in the past has been on responding to the labor market, today’s efforts recognize the growing need to create new employment opportunities. The overarching goal of community college workforce programs is becoming economic development.
 
Sometimes this work is based on the characteristics and strengths of a specific geographic community—such as the network of community colleges in auto communities. In other cases, development is based on the opportunities created through  application of a specific technology—such as the consortium of colleges supported through  a National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education grant that focuses on nano-technology. It can also be centered on the development of jobs within a “new industry,” such as filmmaking, that is relocating to a community.
 
What unites these efforts is the belief that community colleges don’t just educate and train workers for their local labor markets; they also “cross over” to the supply side and help create jobs for their students. This is creative and risky work, and, as the recent investments in green jobs can attest, it can be unclear if and when occupational program “bets” will actually pay off.
 
By adopting an economic development perspective, community college workforce programs have become more driven by the significance of credentials, both to initially secure a job as well as to advance within the career pathway. Federal data indicate that sub-baccalaureate awards increased by 30 percent between 1997 and 2007. Health care and business led the way, accounting for 42 percent of all degrees awarded, and manufacturing and engineering degrees declined.
 
Additionally, the differences between “applied” associate degrees that signified a terminal degree and “traditional” associate degrees have collapsed as more students have applied and successfully transferred to four-year colleges.
 
While there has been an increase in short-term certificates awarded, these are often in conjunction with degrees versus as a replacement. The student success movement, driven by projects such as Achieving the Dream, is being expanded to include labor market payoff as a critical component.
 
Finally, community colleges have increased their offerings in non-credit programs to serve workers coming back for new skill requirements. Some of these programs are combined with foundation courses to increase students’ ability to do college-level work. Other programs offer flexible systems of industry-generated “credentials” that can lead to advancement on the job. In many instances, these are targeted to specific industries, such as the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative maintenance technician’s curriculum, which was developed by colleges located near major automobile plants.
 
Addressing the challenges
 
While these trends indicate both growth and expansion of the community college workforce mission, there are major challenges. The first is whether community colleges have the capabilities and capacities to meet the new demands. In an era of shrinking budgets and declining revenues, emerging technologies are requiring extensive investment in new equipment and in new skills frequently not possessed by current faculty.
 
There are also significant disconnects related to the skills of workforce developers. Identifying viable future career opportunities related to emerging industries and then convincing workforce development boards to fund these projects requires different skills from what made successful, traditional workforce deans or the customized trainers of a decade ago. This means substantial staff development issues must be addressed. 
 
The skill deficiencies of the traditional vocational faculty and administrators are intensified as community colleges face large numbers of underprepared students looking for work. These students often start with non-credit courses, have serious learning issues and need creative ways to escape the developmental education sand trap that stymies their efforts to complete training that will get them a job. How they are exposed to workforce education programs that lead to sustainable employment and support long-term career options is an important question.
 
Finally, there is a major institutional resource challenge regarding workforce development emerging within colleges. At the same time occupational programs are attracting older workers facing long-term unemployment and desperately seeking sustainable jobs, community colleges are attracting younger collegebound students who, in a different economic landscape, would have gone directly to four-year colleges. Since they are not typically interested in occupational classes, these students are less costly to educate and often easier to make successful, which in the new era of accountability is not a small matter.
 
The ability to change and adapt to the new demands of employers, students and their communities is a key reason that U.S. community colleges have played such a pivotal role in the U.S. economy. We are at a critical junction regarding whether we can maintain our agility and responsiveness while facing the new realities. The answer lies in whether we have the commitment, resources and the political will to take on some of these challenges and remain relevant to the needs of American society.
 
Jacobs is president of Macomb Community College (Michigan).​
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