Teachers College, Columbia University
The Mixed Methods Blog
The Mixed Methods Blog

The Mixed Methods Blog

Perspectives from our researchers, highlights from recent studies, and other news about CCRC

What Will Work Look Like for Community College Graduates in a COVID World?

A construction work in a mask checks her clipboard

Economists have intensively researched the impacts and consequences of the pandemic, and their rapid-response work is now vast: There are currently over 500 papers on COVID-19 on the National Bureau of Economic Research website alone. In this blog, we highlight some of the main research findings and their implications for community college programs.

One big economic consensus stands out: Working from home is here to stay. Many workers like it for its flexibility and non-existent commute times. More importantly, many firms like it too—those with more remote work are reporting higher revenues, sales, and stock returns. Having invested in technologies to permit working from home, firms are unlikely to go back to full-time office work any time soon.

This growth in remote work may have profound implications for community colleges. Even if community college graduates themselves do not work from home, many of their colleagues and clients might.

Remote work changes where economic activity happens, much more of that activity now takes place outside cities. With previous economic shocks, cities proved to be quite resilient. But the pandemic is different. As work has moved to the suburbs, markets must move there too. Community colleges that serve a city must now look more broadly at serving the city's suburbs and exurbs.

Remote work also changes what consumers want. To make their new offices (aka their homes) more productive and more comfortable, they are spending more on computing technologies, consumer durables, and house renovations and additions. Community colleges may need to provide more programs that train workers for jobs in industries that serve these demands.

Most significantly, remote work changes how skills are acquired. Much work occurs via computing interactions, rather than personal interactions. Younger workers have fewer on-the-job trainers or mentors, they have less chance for observational learning, and it has become harder for them to network to find jobs in the first place. The pandemic has been especially tough on younger workers: Job losses in 2020 were sharp, and hiring has been slow to recover. Community colleges can play an active role in offering training—perhaps through short certification programs—in the skills that used to be acquired through experience.

There is another significant economic consensus: The healthcare sector is in crisis. Healthcare immediately pivoted toward care for COVID-19 patients, but all other health services fell sharply. Overall, healthcare spending fell in 2020, and employment fell by 10%. To date, the demand for healthcare services has not bounced back, and providers have cut costs by expanding telemedicine services. Community colleges play an important role in educating healthcare workers, and these programs typically have high returns for students. If demand for deferred care does ratchet back up, colleges will need to expand their enrollments in healthcare programs. If, as is likely, telemedicine expands into more areas of healthcare, workers will need to be trained (and licensed) to perform these services. Community colleges are best placed to meet these training needs.

Another consensus is that there has been a big increase in IT/computing investment since the pandemic started. Some workers will be displaced by these new technologies, but many more will gain such that the overall effect of these investments for the economy should be positive. Clearly, workers who invent, supply, or service IT will gain. Workers whose jobs are complementary to IT/computing will also gain. Indeed, much recent investment has been in communications hardware and software, which is useless if there is no one to communicate with. Workers will need to learn to use these new technologies, but when they do, their productivity will increase. Together, these forces should mean higher enrollments in computing courses, many of which can be offered by community colleges.

Unfortunately, one emerging consensus is that pandemic learning loss in K-12 schooling has been substantial. Online learning during the lockdowns was not as effective or efficient as in-person learning would have been, and secondary schools were closed for longer than elementary schools. Recent evidence on test scores shows sharp declines, particularly for disadvantaged students. Community colleges (indeed all colleges) will have to address the immediate needs of incoming cohorts who may have significant deficits in their high school education. Possibly, and in collaboration with local schools, new versions of remedial education may be required.

Of course, one final consensus in economics is that much is uncertain. The pandemic has caused—but also facilitated—a radical restructuring of the U.S. economy. To remain as engines of economic opportunity and mobility, community colleges will need to recognize these changes and respond to them.

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