#18 – Inside Our Industry – Community Colleges Have Long Powered the Economy

Posted on | Inside Our Industry

We have long been proponents of community colleges and especially their role in preparing students for vocational careers. With estimates of some 2.4 million manufacturing jobs going unfilled over the next decade, now is the time to get workers prepared with the necessary skills for those jobs.

Community Colleges Have Long Powered the Economy. To Sustain That Role, They Must Innovate.
By Mordecai I. Brownlee (Columnist)  |  Sep 9, 2020

The marriage between industry, community colleges, and career and technical education is real. However, perhaps now is the time for marital counseling.

Dating back to the groundbreaking Morrill Act of 1862, which formally recognized the role of higher education in preparing citizens for vocations, community-based education has been a staple in America’s history.

But as with any great relationship, the bond between employers and community colleges comes with moments of delight, times of opportunity, and calls for change. We need our career and technical education programs to innovate in order to prepare students for high-wage, high-skill, high-demand science, technical, engineering, and mathematics-based occupations that are crucial in re-tooling America for a prosperous future. This need is urgent due to the demographic, economic and technological changes shaping the workforce.

In order for industry and community colleges to recommit to their marriage, educators, employers and policymakers must:

  • acknowledge the economic realities that actually exist in society and recognize the power of community colleges in driving workforce development to address those realities;
  • collectively incentivize student attainment of career and technical credentials;
  • rally around the importance of workforce preparedness, especially for millennials and Generation Z.

These are priorities because demographers say a “gray tsunami” is coming. By 2030, all baby boomers will be age 65 or older. This means that soon the American workforce will experience a vacuum in several trade and technical occupations. In addition, job losses due to increased regulation, consumer demand shifts and globalization mean many American jobs stand to be revolutionized by robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

As America prepares to move into a post-pandemic economy, one shaped by the pending gray tsunami and technological change, now is the time for our nation’s industries and society as a whole to rediscover the historical significance of community colleges and their importance in the development of the American workforce. Furthermore, it is also imperative that community colleges move to quickly innovate their approaches to teaching and learning, especially in the areas of career and technical education and continuing education.

The following are a few recommendations for community college leaders to consider in the call for innovation:

Community colleges must reinvent their relationships with local industry and ensure alignment with employer demands. As the times change, so does industry, and so should education. Due to a variety of reasons including high tuition prices, lack of gainful employment among graduates, and student debt, America has lost faith in the importance of college degrees. However, community colleges are best positioned to develop low-cost, streamlined programs that serve as guided pathways toward employment and economic empowerment.

Community colleges must adopt emerging technologies in career and technical education. Yes, there are some career and technical programs that must be taught through lab-based, hands-on instruction. However, educators should rethink how we interpret “hands-on.” Artificial intelligence, virtual simulation and other innovations in technology are totally reshaping the American workforce.

Community colleges must embrace a new ideology toward customer service that maintains the integrity of academe. Due to higher education’s lack of responsiveness, industry has recently been developing its own apprenticeship pathways toward workforce development by partnering directly with K-12 schools. Community colleges MUST move quickly to address this by shifting their own approach to workforce development.

Community colleges have long sought to educate and prepare people for the workforce of our country. By refreshing their career and technical education programs in union with industry, they will bear offspring that make both partners proud: credentialed citizens ready to build careers.

Mordecai I. Brownlee is the vice president of student success at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, Texas.