How Community Colleges Can Institutionalize Future of Work Training

Community colleges must be proactive rather than reactive in connecting with regional innovation economies and expanding equitable access to quality jobs of the future.
Blog Post
Pictured: Rick Pena, the first graduate of Pima Community College's autonomous vehicles certificate program. Source: Missy Blair, Pima Community College
May 16, 2022

This article was produced as part of New America's Initiative on the Future of Work and the Innovation Economy. Subscribe to our Future of Work Updates & Events newsletter to stay current on our latest work. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Community colleges across the nation are creating new training programs for diverse learners to access emerging STEM jobs in industries like autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, advanced manufacturing, and artificial intelligence and machine learning.

But training for jobs that are just beginning to come into existence is challenging.

On top of the usual difficulties when creating quality workforce programs, community colleges must work closely with employers, governments, tech-based economic development entities, and across the college internally to:

  • Avoid hype traps around emerging technologies
  • Respond to new workforce needs without clear labor market data or employment outcomes
  • Upskill faculty or recruit instructors to deliver cutting-edge training
  • Recruit students into new occupations that may seem out-of-the-box

To demystify how community colleges can train for the innovation economy, I’m interviewing leaders in the field who have done it. Today’s interview features Pima Community College’s Vice President for Workforce Development and Strategic Partnerships Ian Roark.

Institutionalizing Future of Work training at community colleges:

  • Frame Future of Work training as a part of technology-based economic development: Technology-based economic development is a sub-field of economic development that focuses on tech and innovation economy jobs. Pima's relationships with tech-based economic development entities helped it stand out to employers as the right partner to train for emerging jobs.
  • Presidents must understand the economy of the future: It’s not enough to have forward-thinking faculty, VPs, staff, students, or even employers. Trustees and state leaders who are serious about growing innovation economy jobs should hire presidents who understand tech-based economic development, the jobs that emerge from it, and the role of the community colleges in training from them.
  • Stackability is important, but non-credit agility is key to train for the innovation economy: While observers, including myself, believe deeply in stackable workforce programs, the credit-bearing program development process is oftentimes too slow to keep up with the pace of training needs relating to new tech sectors. Pima uses its non-credit operations to meet employer demands in a timely manner, and then once established, transitions programs into credit-bearing options for students who wish to pursue it.
  • Workforce development should drive program development: Given the interdisciplinary nature of emerging jobs in the tech and innovation economy, Pima transformed its workforce development operation from a vertical stand-alone, auxiliary unit to a horizontal unit responsible for program design, grant development, and employer alignment across the college's complete suite of credit and non-credit programs, including transfer programs. That positioning ensures that employer responsiveness is the first priority of all programs Pima offers, strengthening its reputation as a college that "gets it" when it comes to the Future of Work.
  • Align student entrepreneurship with the college’s Future of Work strategy: Training for emerging jobs and supporting student entrepreneurialism share similar opportunities and challenges. Pima aligns entrepreneurship programs within their broader workforce program portfolio with a Director of Innovation who leads entrepreneurship-focused programming and reports up to the Vice President for Workforce Development and Strategic Partnerships.

In an era of competing priorities and limited resources, why should community colleges focus on the future of work?

“It’s mission-critical.” says Roark, “It’s about meeting the needs of working learners but also meeting the needs of business and industry to achieve upward economic security for students and economic development for employers.”

Pima sees its Future of Work strategy as a part of its workforce development mission.

“Workforce development is considered a part of economic development, but that realization is sometimes lost on the community college sector even though it’s one of the few places where the two can truly operate in unison.” - Ian Roark, Vice President for Workforce Development and Partnerships, Pima Community College
Ian Roark Pima Community College

Recently, Pima has launched degree and non-degree programs that lead to emerging jobs in the autonomous vehicles industry; advanced manufacturing, and cloud computing, which while not a new occupation requires constant reinvention to keep pace with the changing demands of the jobs.

Roark and his team believe that the key to the equitable Future of Work is for community colleges to focus on equity in emerging fields and the good jobs they might create and prevent a shortfall in needed labor as new technologies roll out.

In order to achieve that, community colleges need to be aware of how emerging technologies will augment the existing jobs they train for; how technologies will lead to the displacement of jobs; and how those technologies could create new, better opportunities for students. Amanda Abens, Dean of Workforce Development and Continuing Education at Pima echoed this sentiment, "It is not enough to simply be responsive to business and industry. It is both our opportunity and responsibility to proactively create training for jobs that may not yet exist."

How did Pima Community Colleges institutionalize a Future of Work workforce strategy?

Many colleges have one-off programs that lead to emerging jobs thanks to federal programs like the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technical Education program or specific partnerships with employers like Tesla and Intel, but Roark credited the support and an improved organizational chart spearheaded by Pima’s Chancellor Lee Lambert as critical for institutionalizing Future of Work training.

When Lambert arrived at Pima in 2013, Pima’s workforce office transitioned from a traditional vertical to a horizontal operation. A team of twenty full-time equivalent staff is involved with program development across the entire college whether in non-credit or credit-bearing programs, irrespective if they’re transfer-oriented, job-oriented or both, in case of stackable programs.

Deans have a “dotted line” report to Roark in workforce development, and all instructional programs regardless of category have a “dotted line” to the provost.

Pima also positioned its workforce office as a “business development” unit for the college that drives workforce and academic grant opportunities that align with employers' and regional economic development needs.

Roark told me his unit has helped Pima substantially increase revenue and enrollment which he believes well-positioned the college to fund and support Future of Work training.

And similar to Miami Dade, another community college known for its pathways to the Future of Work, Pima’s Chancellor embedded the navigation of emerging technologies into its strategic plan.

In addition to leadership support and organizational restructuring, Roark cited close partnerships with tech-based economic development entity, Sun Corridor, the Arizona Commerce Authority, the University of Arizona, and the Tucson Innovation Partnership, an informal group of individuals and organizations seeking to serve Arizona's entrepreneurship and innovation communities, as critical partners for anticipating, mitigating risk, and expanding pathways to the Future of Work.

With these partners, Pima is able to anticipate trends with local employers, establish itself as a training partner with enough agility to keep up with new demands and support local employer attraction and retention efforts.

How do entrepreneurship offerings fit into a community college's Future of Work strategy?

Central to building an innovation economy is a vibrant startup and small business ecosystem.

Student and community entrepreneurship, too, is part of Pima’s Future of Work workforce strategy. Pima houses one of the U.S. Commerce Department’s Small Business Development Centers and was recently selected to participate in the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship’s Entrepreneurial College of the Future effort.

The college is in the midst of hiring a Director of Innovation who will report up to Roark in workforce development and has fostered collaborations with the University of Arizona’s Research Park to support and recruit startups to the region in the manufacturing, biotech, aerospace, and defense industries – many of whom tend to be led by former technicians with community college backgrounds.

“Community colleges have always been great at training people to be great workers for others, but from a social justice component, why shouldn’t we help our students become self-employed and business-owners themselves?” - Ian Roark, Vice President for Workforce Development and Partnerships, Pima Community College

As community colleges seek to stem enrollment declines and expand workforce pathways, Roark hopes that more colleges focus on tomorrow's jobs and not just today's jobs and, in many cases, jobs on the automation chopping block.

Shalin Jyotishi is a Senior Policy Analyst on Education and Labor at New America, a Fellow in AI with the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum, and a Visiting Scholar in Science & Technology Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Follow Shalin on Twitter @ShalinJyotishi.

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Related Topics
Workforce Development & CTE