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Community colleges are poised to play a critical role in bridging the growing gap between the demand for high-skilled labor and a declining supply of qualified workers. But they won’t be able to fulfill that mission without significant changes in what they offer.

The demand

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that from 2008 to 2018, there will be a 19.1 percent jump in the number of jobs requiring a two-year degree and a 13.2 percent increase in jobs that require a vocational certificate. In roughly the same timeframe, nearly half of all job openings will be in the so-called “middle-skills” occupations – such as electricians, healthcare workers, legal assistants, machinists and police officers – which require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

“We hear about the need for really high-level, skilled workers – scientists, and doctors and engineers – and that’s true,” said Maria Flynn, vice president of Jobs for the Future’s Building Economic Opportunity Group. “But there is also this real skills-gap in the middle of the economy that shows we really need to prepare workers for those jobs.”

Some estimates say that nearly 90 percent of all new job openings will fall in the middle-skills range. This is good news for people who are already trained in some of the fastest growing fields, such as dental hygiene, nursing, occupational therapy and physical therapy.

The supply

The bad news is that there’s a lack of qualified people queuing up to take these jobs. Baby Boomers, the most highly educated generation in the nation’s history, are retiring at the same time that high school and college graduation rates – which rose steadily for much of last century – have stagnated. Most of the available jobs, meanwhile, require a high school diploma and some college credit.

“We’re facing a larger number of people retiring, but the young people filling their places are not nearly as prepared for those jobs,” said Rita Cepeda, president of San Diego Mesa Community College in California. “There’s a greater demand for the higher-level skills than ever before [and] we have more workers with lower-level skills. So there’s a juxtaposition of low-skilled workers and the higher-level workers needed.”

Challenges

Community colleges are well-positioned to address these training needs by offering career pathways that connect low-cost education and support services to a large number of adult learners. They offer a wide range of programs but can have serious limitations, especially limited capacities and multiple missions that aren’t easily reconciled. There are also questions about the ability and capacity of community colleges to train people for middle-skills jobs. Many institutions will need to begin offering more non-credit courses.

Engineer Matthew Skalny helps a student program a robot at the Robofest Lego Robotics station during Robotics Engineering and Technology (RET) Week, held May 4–5, 2010, at Macomb Community College, Warren, MI. More than 2,000 students from Michigan junior and senior high schools attended RET week, which provided them with a hands-on look at robotics careers and the crucial role robotic platforms play for the U.S. Army. (U.S. Army TARDEC photo by Elizabeth Carnegie.)

Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., says community colleges serve two broad categories of students – young people, who have long-term career goals and want to earn a four-year degree eventually, and adults, who are more focused on acquiring the exact skills they need for entry-level jobs.

That means community colleges must provide sophisticated programs with strong foundational skills and have close ties to four-year institutions, while also responding to the need for middle-skills workers by creating non-credit courses for a wide range of occupations. Jacobs says that deciding how to fulfill both of these missions with limited resources is difficult.

Complicating the picture is the fact that forecasting workforce needs isn’t a perfect science. Jacobs offered the example of Michigan officials, who overestimated the demand for robotics. “For a long time, robotics training was considered an important area to get into,” he said. “At our college, we had 2,000 people in robotics training until somebody looked at the numbers and figured out we were producing enough robotics technicians to service the entire United States. So, we have to be more accurate and more precise.”

Possible solutions

Collaboration among private industry, institutions of higher education and workforce development groups is also key. Such an effort in northern Virginia led to a comprehensive study of projected labor-market needs. And that led, among other things, to the opening of a new Medical Education Campus at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), which offers a long list of credit and non-credit programs aimed at helping the region handle an expected shortage of nearly 20,000 healthcare workers.

There are a few examples of efforts to reach adult learners already in the workforce, including Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., which offers in-person and online courses in business administration.

The State Center Community College District in Fresno, Calif., offers a 10-week program that leads to certification as a nursing assistant as a gateway for many students who might not have considered going to college.

On a broader scale, the U.S. Department of Labor announced earlier this year the availability of $125 million in grants for community-based job training programs. The grants will support workforce training for high-growth and high-demand industries through the nation’s system of community, technical and tribal colleges.

Susan Sawyers contributed reporting.

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