Community College Partnerships with Unions Can Help Serve Adult Learners

A new brief by AFL-CIO calls for more labor union-community college workforce training partnerships to serve adult learners and workers.
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Union members getting educated at community colleges
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Dec. 11, 2023

Labor unions are having a comeback moment in the United States, and community college partnerships with labor unions could unlock new avenues to support working adults in search of upskilling and reskilling as the job market changes.

An October 2023 brief from AFL-CIO's Working for America Institute titled Advancing Partnerships Between Organized Labor and Community Colleges describes the role of organized labor in worker education and training, principles for effective partnerships between labor unions and community colleges, and examples of partnerships in action.

The report builds on conversations facilitated by the White House's National Economic Council in Fall 2023 among labor unions and community colleges to prepare for workforce development needs. This work is important to President Biden who has taken a position as the “most union-friendly president in American history” and became the first sitting U.S. president to join picket lines alongside workers participating in the United Auto Workers Strike.

Further, American support for unions has been rising since 2009. An August 2023 Gallup poll suggested the public is rallying behind expanding union influence, with two out of three Americans supporting labor unions.

Community colleges are known to enjoy public support nationwide. New America’s “Varying Degrees,” an annual survey about Americans’ perspectives on education after high school, finds that 85 percent of polled Americans believe community colleges are worth the cost, compared to 66 percent of those who feel the same about public four-year colleges.

Many unions provide workforce development through labor-management partnerships or partnerships with employers, which are often structured as independent organizations. Unions span the gamut regarding the sophistication of their workforce development offerings, opening up multiple avenues for community college collaboration.

Many unions could benefit from the resources and expertise of community colleges including their ability to offer robust wraparound services, their partnerships with a broad range of employers, and the ability to offer credit-bearing workforce programs that make it more likely for learners to be able to stack their credentials for degree attainment later down the road.

At the same time, not all community colleges are workforce-oriented. Many colleges prioritize a traditional role as transfer-oriented institutions that offer more affordable pathways to 4-year institutions. Transfer-oriented community colleges are especially well-positioned to benefit from collaborating with unions to grow their non-degree workforce portfolios.

How Unions and Community Colleges Can Support One Another

According to the AFL-CIO brief, "Union-community college partnerships fully align with the labor movement’s core goals of advancing workers’ rights, social and economic justice, quality training, and quality jobs." The brief outlines a few areas where unions can be helpful to community colleges in fulfilling their workforce development mission.

  • Unions can be a source of funding and facilities for workforce training programs. Unions can assist community colleges in identifying funding, including public resources or direct investment through jointly negotiated training funds. For example, North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and partner contractors invest nearly $2 billion annually in U.S. apprentice and journey-level training. NABTU’s affiliate unions and partner contractors operate more than 1,600 U.S. training centers. Jointly offered programs can provide funding for workforce offerings while meeting union member needs. Many unions and labor-management partnerships have their own training facilities, resources, and experienced trainers to complement community college resources and reduce the cost and time needed for program design and delivery.
  • Unions can help colleges serve adult learners: New America’s research has affirmed that adult learners need flexibility in their classes to be successful. Unions know the schedules of their members and the companies who employ them. Unions, with an aggregate understanding of local employers, can assist community colleges by providing guidance on flexible schedules for working students.
  • Unions can help scale quality apprenticeship programs: Registered apprenticeships are a gold standard in workforce education, representing the closest possible coupling between employers and education providers. As more community colleges seek to create apprenticeship programs, including youth apprenticeships and credit-bearing, degree-connected apprenticeships, unions could be strong partners for mentors, apprentices, training resources, and employer partners.
  • Unions bring a worker perspective on program design: Union leaders and members can provide insights to colleges about the needs of prospective students, completing insights gained from industry advisory committees that most colleges have. Worker and learner voice is often left out of program design. The workforce field has created many resources to bolster employer voice in program design ranging from New America’s own research and recent reports from the Strada Education Foundation and the Aspen Institute. Unions can provide critical consumer perspectives needed for quality, attractive programs that can successfully drive enrollment increases.

Examples of Community College-Union Partnerships

AFL-CIO’s brief highlights several impressive examples of effective community college-union partnerships, particularly around scaling apprenticeship offerings.

Antelope Valley College and Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation (SMART) Workers Local 105 Partnership partnered to create the Build Your Dream program in Lancaster, California which was the first industrial manufacturing technician registered apprenticeship program in California, and the first electric bus manufacturing apprenticeship program in the country.

Antelope Valley College integrated content about union membership, provided apprentices with a special session in the campus computer lab to offer instructions on the college's online application process and partnered with the union to develop a credit-bearing program offering for the apprenticeship program. The college also hired union and employer instructors to teach apprentices, conduct periodic evaluations, and provide feedback.

Ivy Tech Community College and Building Trades Joint Labor-Management Apprenticeship and Training Committees (JATCs) alongside the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and the Department of Workforce Development partnered to create the Building Trades Apprenticeship Degree Program in Indiana.

The partnership is a model of degree-connected apprenticeship programs in which apprentices earn college credits counting to an associate’s degree while completing their apprenticeship program. Ivy Tech’s associate in Applied Science degree in Apprenticeship Technology program serves multiple trades with instruction provided across 60 training sites. More than 13,000 degrees have been awarded along with thousands of national certifications which are embedded within the degree program.

Unions and community colleges have also partnered to create workforce training in emerging industries. Rowan College of South Jersey in collaboration with Rowan University, Gloucester County Institute of Technology, IBEW, and labor unions representing carpenters, sheet metal workers, and ironworkers are collaborating to offer training programs in the emerging offshore wind industry. The partners are developing a stackable, credit-bearing program to credential workers for the nearly 7,000 estimated jobs expected to be created to build, maintain, and staff the nation’s largest offshore wind farm in New Jersey.

As unions seek to expand and support their membership across more industries, and as community colleges seek to better serve adult learners and support the upskilling needed for the future of work, these organizations should partner with each other to provide better workforce training.