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When community colleges are called “comprehensive,” it isn’t because they do (or try to do) everything. It’s because their missions encompass both a transfer function and a workforce function. The national higher ed discourse is dominated by elite institutions, so it tends to focus on the transfer function when it notices community colleges at all. But many local employers are quite attuned to the workforce function, and it’s starting to attract attention.

Workforce programs can exist in both credit-bearing and noncredit forms. Nursing programs, for instance, are credit-bearing programs with an obvious workforce orientation. C.N.A. training is usually noncredit, although some colleges either allow it to transfer in for credit or use it as a prerequisite.

The distinction between credit and noncredit matters for financial aid, transferability and calculations of faculty workload. For many employers, though, it’s a matter of indifference; they want people who can do certain things, whether they get credit or not.

Last week I attended a conference of the New Jersey Pathways to Career Opportunities initiative, which is a statewide effort to connect K-12, community colleges and four-year colleges to area employers. A few highlights:

  • Judging by employers’ complaints, labor shortages are becoming more serious.  For a long time, a perfectly reasonable response to complaints of a labor shortage was that they should just raise pay. Now, though, in some skilled areas, they can’t find people even with better pay. In some of the skilled trades, the median age of the existing workforce is high enough that they’re starting to panic. That dynamic, combined with an increased awareness of the need to diversity the workforce, is pushing many employers to reconsider degree requirements for certain positions. Degrees made decent proxies for skill when there was a labor surplus, but when workers run short, insisting on a proxy measure is self-defeating.
  • Noncredit programs (which need a better name—defining them by what they are not isn’t ideal) are not bound by the confines of the credit hour or the semester schedule. If a given skill can be taught in four weeks, so be it. Some colleges are using noncredit offerings as testing grounds for potential new credit-bearing programs. When academic credit isn’t at stake, some of the barriers to new programs—such as finding faculty with the right degrees—can fall away. A competent mechanic can teach the techniques of a brake job whether they have a graduate degree or not. However, the financial aid system was built for “degree-seeking students,” so retrofitting it for noncredit programs is a heavy lift.
  • It would be naïve not to notice that overproduction of qualified employees would drive wages down. Some colleges have addressed that directly with local employers. Iris Palmer, from New America, noted in her keynote that Monroe Community College (Rochester, N.Y.) negotiated with prospective employers of C.N.A.s to get them to commit to better wages before MCC agreed to start its program. It also required the employers to work with the college on scheduling so students could work while they were in the program. As Palmer put it, employers had to put some skin in the game. That metaphor is usually used in the other direction, but I liked this version quite a bit. The point of colleges is to help their students; flooding a market wouldn’t accomplish that. 
  • Annelies Goger, from Brookings, cited data from some international studies showing that the graduates who earned the most were usually those who switched between credit and noncredit programs over time (which she called the “permeability ladder”). It’s not a perfect match, but think of the two categories as consisting of short-term skills and long-term skills. Using QuickBooks is a short-term skill; communicating effectively is a long-term skill. Employees who have both bring the most value. The short-term skill gets you hired, and the long-term skill makes you promotable.

Community colleges are uniquely well positioned within higher ed to run programs like these, given their clearly local orientation. After all, the workforce needs in a given area may be very different from those of another area even in the same state.

The workforce development side of community colleges isn’t always a clean fit with the existing internal structures of colleges. One of the tasks for college leaders over the next few years will be finding ways to meet those needs while working within structures that were built with different purposes in mind. It’ll take some doing, but I was heartened to see that some have already shown how it can be done.

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