3 ways community colleges must adapt to workforce changes

Community colleges are front-and-center in the discussion of how postsecondary institutions can serve lifelong learning needs, according to a new white paper from the Community College Research Center that notes these colleges saw major gains in workforce education programs and companion federal support during the Great Recession.

To meet this new charge, the colleges must adapt in three key ways, explains James Jacobs, president emeritus of Macomb Community College. They must create stronger transfer pathways, ensure workforce education is keeping up with changes in technology and industry and extend the workforce training imperative throughout the institution.

STEM programs can be a good starting point for these changes, Jacobs writes, because they can connect community college’s workforce education offerings to four-year degrees. These colleges must also balance the need to offer people ways to “acquire skills quickly so they can obtain meaningful work” and “indicate to students that they will need credentials of value if they are to be competitive in the labor market.”

Jacobs, in his article based on a chapter for a new book about the future of community colleges, recommends several ideas for ways they can adapt. Several are supported by a 2016 Brookings Institution report, whose five recommendations for community colleges include strong internal leadership and collaboration, a focus on STEM fields for workforce training initiatives, and connecting those and other programs to external funding and support.

In one case, Jacobs suggests that to be an engine of economic growth in their regions, community colleges must support existing entrepreneurs and train new ones. The growing movement to link community colleges and entrepreneurship is evident in the fast growth of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, which in a recently released book makes the case that two-year colleges need to champion startup businesses to “remain relevant in a changing economy” and produce students with “flexible and interdisciplinary mindsets needed for the future of society.”

As examples of community colleges that are making connections to local businesses, Jacobs points to NYDesigns at LaGuardia Community College, which provides space, equipment, advising and other support for design and hardware startups. He also highlights the Innovation Fund founded by Lorain County Community College, in Ohio, to help provide capital for emerging companies that then offer employment opportunities for its students.

Jacobs also suggests they look beyond their communities and develop networks with other community colleges in their states and nationally. One recent example comes from Missouri, where the state’s 12 community colleges formed a network to help them better address workforce training needs across the state.

Another of Jacobs’ recommendations is an apprenticeship system that is offered parallel to the educational system. Many other countries offer sophisticated apprenticeship programs that provide early hands-on training while also teaching students about the workplace and specific jobs to inform their future career decisions. Several governors and the Trump administration have indicated they are interested in more of a focus on apprenticeships.

By: James Paterson