The Mixed Methods Blog

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Rethinking Community College Workforce Programs

A group of nursing students gathers around an IV bag

This essay originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

While the growing focus on equity has caught many postsecondary institutions by surprise, community colleges have concentrated on those issues for at least a decade. National initiatives such as Achieving the Dream have developed a rich body of practices that many colleges use to increase student success and narrow the racial/ethnic gap in student performance. However, one area of community colleges that has often lagged is workforce development.

Access to sustainably waged jobs and careers is an essential equity issue, but inequities in workforce programs are often difficult to address, even for the colleges most willing to challenge inequities within their own walls. Colleges’ workforce divisions usually respond to the private sector’s demands and do not control the labor markets they face. And within colleges, a widely held view has been that good workforce programs raise the boats of students of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds and that the emphasis should be on the program’s quality.

That belief, however well motivated, is a mistake. Community colleges need to look very closely at their workforce programs to assess how well they fit within their equity missions.

Borrowing from a paper written by Sara Haviland of ETS, I’d like to explore four aspects of any successful workforce development program: getting in, getting through, getting out, and getting on. Each of those areas has issues to consider.

Getting In

While community colleges are generally open-enrollment institutions, selective occupational programs often administer competitive tests to determine admission, as well as rank students through a set of criteria that often places those of color and English language learners at a significant disadvantage. Colleges also screen out students by imposing math requirements, even when the jobs that students are preparing for rarely require math.

Moreover, in areas such as nursing, where employers are clamoring for professionals who look like the people they serve and speak the languages used by community members, few academic programs adopt recruitment and placement strategies that encourage that diversity. Community colleges need to examine the entrance requirements to those programs to determine if they are unnecessary barriers to students’ entry.

Getting Through

Program structure is another area that colleges should examine from the perspective of equity. For-credit workforce programs can tend to become far more specialized than necessary. Some occupational programs require more credit hours than can be completed in two years, delaying students’ entrance into the workplace. But employers often want the people they hire to have fewer specialized skills and more of an ability to learn on the job. In those cases, programs should be shorter, with a focus on essential technical and organizational competencies. That would allow low-income students, in particular, to begin earning a wage far more quickly and motivate them to finish the program.

Of course, not all short-term credentials lead to higher earnings and successful advancement. Still, those of us in higher education should recognize that getting into the labor force more quickly is important to single heads of households or new Americans who need income right away. Programs that can shift more of the learning to the workplace—and help students earn money while completing their education—make good sense for promoting an equity agenda.

Perhaps equally important are the wraparound services that students require to complete a program. Some colleges have done outstanding work initiating programs that distribute emergency funds, help students access benefits, and solve problems like a lack of transportation. Colleges should consider extending supports into areas like academics and career coaching, possibly via recent former students who have completed the program and are currently working in the sector.

Faculty members also have a role in helping students to get through their programs; they must not only be teachers but also coaches for their students. They can teach their students not just technical skills but also prepare them to be resilient at a workplace where they may be the only minority. The ability to face cultural situations at work will be an important determinant of their success and advancement in an occupation. 

Getting Out

Most employers—including the small firms that are the primary customers of community colleges—are extremely responsive and adaptable in their hiring practices based on the specific labor market at the time of hire. The college’s role is to prepare all occupational students to be able to learn on the job. Not only will that level the playing field so employers are not raising their skill requirements in times when supply exceeds demand, but it also signals a clear, consistent message to students about what they need to know. Also, background checks and nonfelony incarcerations should not be permitted to disqualify workers. Hiring decisions should depend on simply whether the person can do the job.

Many smaller employers do not have consistent hiring practices and are uncertain about how to structure them. They might appreciate the help of the community college in defining their skill requirements more effectively. It may be useful for colleges to develop agreements with a few firms whose owners have hired students from the college and are familiar with the institution’s programs, instructors, and values. Moving from supplying talent to companies to helping them identify their workplace skill needs may be challenging for some colleges, yet it could significantly benefit their students and the communities they serve.

Getting On

Technical skills may be necessary to obtain a job, but work-readiness and nontechnical skills acquired with certificates and degrees will advance individuals within a company or a sector. Although people tend to juxtapose short-term training and longer-term degree programs, employers and colleges should combine aspects of both to fit students’ short-run need for income and their long-run interest in advancement.

In fact, one of the most crucial things community colleges can do with employers is to get them to recognize that the talents they seek often already exist within their workforce. Instead of hiring from the outside, they can create an internal development and hiring strategy. The college becomes a partner in the firm’s human resources practices by ensuring that local students can obtain work and the college can supply the skills those workers need to advance.

None of these suggestions will apply to all programs or employers. Colleges will need to determine what best fits their specific labor markets. But this approach will position institutions to work as partners with local companies and serve as a bridge for students who often get left behind because of their skin color or the language they speak at home. In this way, colleges will be able to perform an important role not only for their students but also for America’s future.

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