Community college and labor union partnerships are a win-win in the AI era

Labor-community college partnerships could increase enrollment and union membership value while expanding upskilling and reskilling options for millions of adults.
Blog Post
The AI era requires a new generation of partnerships between community colleges and labor unions to upskill and reskill millions of adults.
May 16, 2024

This article was produced as part of New America's Future of Work and the Innovation Economy Initiative. Share this article and your thoughts with us on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and subscribe to our Future of Work Updates & Events newsletter to stay current on our latest research and writing.

Up to forty percent of the workforce will need to upskill or reskill as more employers accelerate AI adoption in the workplace. Many important ideas to help the labor market navigate the future of work – but a missing ingredient is labor union partnerships with workforce training partners, especially community colleges.

In recent years, labor unions have stepped up their response to AI. The most notable accomplishment was the Hollywood Writers Strike, led by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, which culminated in historic AI protections. Shortly thereafter, in December 2023, Microsoft and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, announced a significant partnership to navigate AI in the workplace. It was the first partnership of its kind between a labor organization and a technology company.

Likewise, community colleges have become unexpected destinations for AI education with growing enrollment. Buoyed by investments from the U.S. National Science Foundation and companies like Intel and Amazon, there are now community college-level AI programs in most states ranging from K-12 immersive programs, certificates, associate’s degrees, and even applied baccalaureate programs (24 states permit their 2-year colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees).

The time is right for more partnerships between community colleges and labor unions to help millions of workers gain the skills needed to succeed in the AI era. Partnerships would also serve as a “win-win” strategy to help both sectors address student enrollment and membership woes.

An opportunity for community colleges to serve working adults

Today, community college-union partnerships do exist, but they are rare. They are most often found in the building construction, manufacturing, or skilled trade industries, particularly for apprenticeship programs. However, the need for partnerships is becoming more visible. Last year, the AFL-CIO called for more partnerships between unions and community colleges following a series of roundtables organized by the White House National Economic Council that brought together labor and community college leaders.

Around 41 percent of all undergraduate students, many of whom are from groups underrepresented in the tech sector, attend a community college, and 65% come from families earning less than $50,000 a year. Community colleges have long been affordable, flexible, and accessible destinations for adults and professional development. However, as student demographics shift, more colleges are placing a greater emphasis on serving working adults.

Next year, America will hit a long-anticipated high school “demographic cliff,” with a peak of around 3.5 million high schoolers graduating next year. After that, the high school graduating population is expected to shrink across the next five to ten years by as much as 15 percent.

Labor unions represent a pool of adult workers prime to benefit from economic mobility afforded by community colleges. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 14.4 million workers belonged to a union in 2023. Another 1.8 million workers with no union affiliation were employed at places covered by a union contract.

For perspective, the total number of the high school graduating class has not been larger than 3.4 million in the last fifteen years. Even if only a quarter of the 14.4 million union members participated in a community college workforce program, the number would still exceed the total high school graduates who could enroll. Further, men and Black workers are more likely to be in unions–the very population segment has sharply declined at community colleges.

An open house taking place in Chandler-Gilbert Community College's AI lab in Chandler, Arizona.
Source: Chandler-Gilbert Community College/AACC
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and Microsoft President Brad Smith sign the new tech-labor partnership agreement on AI.
Source: Microsoft

An opportunity for labor unions to recruit and retain members

Although still a sizable segment of the workforce, labor union membership has been in long-term decline. Illicit union-busting practices, weakening and poor enforcement of existing labor laws, the rise of contract work, and other factors have driven the decline.

But workers want to join a union. Public opinion data from the Pew Research Center shows that 54 percent of American adults say the decline in union membership has been bad for the country, and 59 percent say this has been bad for working people. Gallup polling revealed that two out of three Americans support labor unions. 2023 was widely considered the “Year of Labor.” Beyond the landmark AI agreements and announcements, the labor movement was bolstered by a historic strike by the United Auto Workers, where President Joe Biden became the first sitting U.S. president to join picket lines.

Through community college partnerships, labor unions could boost the value of union membership for its existing members through upskilling opportunities which would also help them to recruit new members. Much like how a new California law is helping educate high schoolers about labor rights, the labor movement needs more college students to understand their labor rights, including their constitutional right to form a union. Partnerships could be a new recruitment and awareness-building mechanism for unions that also benefits students.

When Antelope Valley College and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers Local 105 Partnership partnered to create the Build Your Dream program in Lancaster, California, Antelope Valley integrated content about union membership into the program and hired union members as industry adjuncts to teach apprentices.

Not only do these partnerships make sense given the 2-year sector’s historic strength in serving adults and focus on AI-focused workforce development, but Americans believe in the power of community colleges. While confidence in higher education is in decline, public support for community colleges is still strong. 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.

Expanding worker mobility and opportunity in the AI era

To be sure, unions and colleges will need to evolve to forge effective partnerships. These changes will include navigating program financing, agreeing on credential or program formats, and ensuring employer alignment. The AFL-CIO brief described above outlined some compelling models that could be used to pilot programs, but more research is needed.

We have much to learn about AI's impact on the labor market, but one thing is clear: Workers will need to embrace continuous education, community colleges will support those education needs, and unions will need to continue to lean into AI navigation, including around upskilling and reskilling. Community college and labor union partnerships are sensible and worth pursuing in the AI era.

Shalin Jyotishi is New America's Senior Advisor for Education, Labor, and the Future of Work and Founder of its Future of Work & Innovation Economy initiative. Follow Shalin on Twitter and LinkedIn.