How Community Colleges can Focus on Job Quality

Blog Post
Photo by PTTI EDU on Unsplash
Dec. 9, 2020

Over the past decade, millions of Americans without a college degree emerged from the recession in jobs that were low-wage, insecure, and lacked benefits like paid leave. We are seeing the result of these low-quality, tenuous jobs in the massive unemployment rates resulting from the shock of the pandemic. Everyone is hurting, but unemployment for someone with only a high school diploma or some college experience is almost twice that of a person with a bachelor's degree or higher.

We need a better way for people who don’t have bachelor’s degrees to access stable, well-paying jobs emerging from this economic crisis. To be clear, we need more of these jobs full stop. And this should be supported by policy and public investment. But at the same time, we need to offer training pathways that provide access to these jobs without requiring adults to sit in college for four-years to rejoin the labor market. The good news is that community colleges are already thinking about job quality and their responsibility to train students for jobs that provide a living wage.

Over the late spring and summer, we spoke with community college leaders about their career training programs and their response to the pandemic. We conducted 20 calls with community colleges, tribal colleges, community college systems, college foundations, and community college associations across 15 states.

One key theme that emerged was that colleges are grappling with their obligations to students and their community around the quality of the jobs they offer training for. Several colleges reported that they had declined to provide training for an employer who would not pay program graduates enough or provide high-enough quality jobs. Call centers and medical billing were the prime examples of the types of programs community colleges were reluctant to start because of low wages and poor working conditions. Other occupations that came up were cosmetology, phlebotomy, and certified nursing assistants.

One leader we interviewed said, “Phlebotomy may be an example where we're...having a hard time getting students into those programs because you can make as much money at McDonald's...We have had a conversation about the morality of that and whether...there's something that we can do to either help push those salaries upward or whether it means getting out of the business of training [for them].” Another said, “We look at wage data, we look at high-demand employment data because we want to make sure that we're not setting people out to not make a living wage.” Colleges are actively grappling with their role in ensuring job quality for their graduates, particularly in a high unemployment environment.

It is time to empower colleges to take a more active role in connecting graduates to high-quality jobs. Ways to do so might include using formal criteria defining a quality job when the college is considering creating a new training program, using innovative program design like work-based learning, and creating partnerships with governors, mayors, and community organizations to create external pressure on employers to increase job quality. As we turn to rebuilding our economy, connecting people with stable, well-paying jobs will be key to creating more economic stability and a stronger economic prospect for all.

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