What Makes a Community College Excel at Workforce Development?

New America, in partnership with the Lumina Foundation, is pleased to announce our second cohort of New Models for Career Preparation community college grantees
Blog Post
Nov. 29, 2021

As the labor market slowly recovers from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, evidence is growing that it is undergoing a profound and unequitable shift.

The overall unemployment rate is dropping, but it is increasing for Black workers. Employers complain of labor shortages but long-term unemployment remains high.

Community colleges will be particularly important by providing high-quality, responsive workforce training helping people adjust to this new labor market, and empowering them to access high-quality jobs.

Across well over two hundred and fifty interviews over the past two years for our New Models for Career Preparation project—unpacking the design and financing principles underpinning of quality non-degree workforce offerings at community colleges—we have heard numerous accounts of the value of community colleges as workforce development catalysts in their regions. We have also come across some of the practices that scare off employers, labor organizations, economic development organizations, and other workforce partners.

Through that research, we have come up with four key indicators of an effective, workforce-oriented community college. These indicators can guide a college to be a powerful economic development catalyst in its region while signaling to partners that the college is an effective workforce partner.

We are excited to announce our new cohort of New Models for Career Preparation grantees where we will test these indicators and connect them to the creation of high-quality, non-degree programs at scale.

County College of Morris

Des Moines Area Community College

Lone Star College

Mott Community College

Sacramento City College

Tidewater Community College

Plentiful offerings and robust workforce staffing:

They say if you want to know an organization’s priorities, don’t look at the strategic plan—look at the organization’s budget—revenues and expenditures.

We know that community colleges are responsible for varied missions from transfer pathways to workforce training, but we also heard that these competing priorities can result in a lack of focus that might leave local employers, labor groups, economic developers, and even students frustrated and looking for alternatives.

That’s why the workforce mission needs to be adequately staffed and funded. Only with sufficient resources can workforce programs generate a significant portion of enrollment and serve the needs of the community.

For instance, in California, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has tried to partner with community colleges on creating high-quality healthcare pathways for its members. SEIU knew that the California community college system has the highest quality programs, but unfortunately, the colleges lacked the capacity to increase the number of students they can serve, leaving the union to look elsewhere for partners to upskill more than 700,000 members.

Robust, long-term employer relationships:

Workforce training at community colleges cannot be high quality if it is designed and executed in isolation from employer partners.

Intentionality is critical for employer relationships. Colleges should have a systemic, standardized approach to working with employers so that all employers experience the same quality partnership across the college whether in manufacturing, healthcare, IT, or skilled trades.

This might include leveraging established approaches like Business & Industry Leadership Team (BILT) and Developing a Curriculum (DACUM), or creating a standard process or handbook for administering industry advisory committees.

It’s also important that colleges focus on building systematic relationships with hiring managers and HR staff in addition to executives.

Employer-college relationships should be reciprocal meaning employers should contribute through financial or in-kind contributions such as equipment donations, scholarships, interview guarantees, and supporting work-based learning opportunities.

Some of the best college workforce programs we’ve seen have hired instructors directly from their employer partners like Mesa Community College’s for-credit Bootcamp partnership with Boeing or Miami Dade’s Tesla START partnership.

Advancing equity and addressing occupational segregation:

Fostering racial and gender equity and addressing occupational segregation is a necessary focus for a truly excellent workforce-oriented community college.

As our nation continues to work toward racial justice, focusing on serving populations that have been historically underserved is the right thing to do and core to the community college mission. At the same time, one of the reasons that employers work with community colleges is to access the diverse pipeline of employees they provide.

Specifically, an excellent workforce college will have robust wraparound services available to both credit-bearing and non-credit workforce students ideally with staff that demographically mirror the students served.

Colleges should also have SMART goals around wraparound service utilization, effectiveness, as well as standardized, consistent metrics around recruiting, graduating, and placing underrepresented students into good jobs.

Impressive labor market outcomes with a focus on job quality

The conversation around student success used to center around expanding access to college, then it expanded to college completion, now innovative college leaders are thinking about outcomes after graduation – and in this vein, a good workforce college will focus on labor market outcomes.

College leaders should have a way of measuring whether most workforce graduates get jobs related to their program of study with wages equal to at least the local living wage.

Colleges should pay attention to and work with employers to improve non-wage markers of a quality job like schedule stability, paid leave, health insurance, low occupational turnover rates, career advancement opportunities, and other benefits.

For instance, Monroe Community College worked with its local employers to increase the job quality of its Certified Nursing Assistant graduates. They increased pay, scheduling flexibility, and provided new career pathways, making these higher-quality jobs.

Colleges should track labor market and job quality markers across all workforce programs, credit-bearing and not (yes, not all workforce programs are non-credit bearing).

The college should survey graduates and employers to see how relevant training was to the job obtained and use real-time labor market information to inform program development whether through state sources, surveys, or offerings from firms like Burning Glass Emsi.

Now, we are excited to announce our next cohort of New Models of Career Preparation grantees which over the coming year, will help us pressure test our best thinking about what makes a good workforce community college and how colleges can create high quality, non-degree programs.

We believe these criteria can position a community college to maximize its workforce excellence and increase the possibility of creating high-quality, non-degree programs. We look forward to working with our second New Models for Career Preparation cohort of grantees to advance this research and storytelling.

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Shalin Jyotishi is a Senior Policy Analyst on Education and Labor at New America and a Fellow at the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum. Follow Shalin on Twitter @ShalinJyotishi

Iris Palmer is Deputy Director for Community Colleges at New America. Follow Iris on Twitter @IrisonHigherEd.

Keep in touch with our New Models for Career Preparation project by subscribing to our Ed & Labor Bulletin newsletter.