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Some 16.9 million Americans have been displaced from their jobs because of the pandemic and many of those positions aren’t coming back. Even for those who are still employed, the skills required to keep one’s job are changing fast in virtually every field. 

Workers need to be able to develop incremental skills rapidly if they are to stay relevant, and the unemployed need to acquire new ones on the fly. Where should they turn?

America’s 1,100 community colleges represent the obvious infrastructure for reskilling and upskilling a workforce that must be reinvented at scale for a new economy. Yet, for community colleges to live up to their promise, they need to shift their focus.

Even before the current crisis, it was increasingly clear that too few community colleges were ready to rise to the challenges posed by the new economy. Over the past 12 months, we have been part of an Opportunity America working group studying the changes needed for community colleges to become the engine for both economic mobility and national competitiveness. 

Related: Special Report on Community Colleges

The taskforce’s report, “The Indispensable Institution,” lays out a blueprint for such a transformation. 

Community colleges provide crucial, affordable education at a moment when advancing equity has never been more urgent. In a nation with limited on-the-job training, few apprenticeships and short-term employment relationships, they are also often a singular resource for workforce training in many locations. 

Community colleges provide crucial, affordable education at a moment when advancing equity has never been more urgent. In a nation with limited on-the-job training, few apprenticeships and short-term employment relationships, they are also often a singular resource for workforce training in many locations. 

Yet, in recent years community colleges have put roughly two-thirds of their resources into conferring so-called “transfer degrees” – general education programs geared to eventual matriculation at four-year institutions. They provide a lower-cost route to a BA, but unfortunately only 14 percent of those students actually end up completing bachelor’s degrees within six years. 

Related: More students start earning stackable credentials on their way to degrees

We don’t think community colleges should abandon their transfer programs –  in fact we think the often-sharp debate contrasting the merits of “academic vs. technical” learning is a false choice. Everything we know about the emerging skills critical to gaining and keeping good paying jobs underscores that human skills and technical skills need to travel together.

We do think, however, that the biggest opportunities for community colleges lie with innovative programs that are rooted in local needs, based on the job opportunities actually available, and closely tied to the real-life world of work. Here are some of our ideas:

  1. Tear down the wall between credit and non-credit learning to produce credentials of value. Non-credit learning has long been higher education’s stepchild. But many working learners don’t necessarily need a degree; they need a skill – and a credential that employers acknowledge and value. Too often, students acquire credits that don’t build toward such a credential. We need to streamline the process so credentials are truly stackable, enabling learners to move into progressively better jobs while fulfilling the promise of earning a college degree skill-by-skill.
  2. Restructure the student experience around working learners. Working learners go to school to improve their prospects, but they can’t stop feeding their families while they learn. Yet many institutions’ core processes are still organized as if their student bodies were full-time students. Combining career and academic advising, broadening online learning, expanding night and weekend programming and streamlining credit transfer processes are all examples of how to make learning accessible to those who can’t pursue it full-time.
  3. Reimagine career services and employer relations. Even in career-oriented programs, the work of helping students land a job is too often an afterthought, the coda to a course of study. Instead, community colleges should operate unabashedly like recruiting agencies with a college attached, including links between classroom instruction and what students learn on the job. With the right ties to employers, community colleges can become the first call hiring managers make to find talent and a close partner in upskilling incumbent workers.
  4. Keep programs closely aligned with the job market. Community colleges can’t provide pathways for students into good paying jobs if the skills they learn are out of sync with what employers need. Program review can’t be something that happens only when accreditation is due. Colleges need to be regularly adjusting programs to meet the market.

At the beginning of the last century, it was the expansion of the American high school that produced a workforce that was the envy of the world. The community college can be a similar dynamo for the 21st century. In an economy where mobility was ebbing even before the Covid-19 pandemic, now is the time for community colleges to reshape themselves to put opportunity at the center of their mission. That can be the foundation for a more equitable future.   

Matt Sigelman is CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a labor analytics firm.

Joe Fuller leads the Managing the Future of Work Initiative at Harvard Business School. 

This story about community colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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  1. As I read the article “OPINION: Community colleges can be the engine of economic recovery. But first, they must adapt,” I thought to myself, “Hey, I said that a long time ago!” People who have degrees move up and get raises after years of “on the job” experience. The politics of the situation is that you have to have the degree to enter your field of choice at the starting point, lowest on the list of new hires. A stack-able skill set that earns a degree is something that should have been going on for years now. The first 2 years of a BA is a repeat of high school. How does that help a student to gain NEW skills?
    Let’s consider technology, for example. It is a hands on, try this and see what happens, type of experience that one only gets better at with practice. With a mentor and on the job experience, a person would be a much more productive, perhaps even phenomenal employee. Apprenticeships should be considered more lucrative and beneficial for the employer that a college degree.
    My next thought after reading this article was that nobody has mentioned the 2 new skill sets that I, myself, only recently read about, which are soft skills and hard skills, with blockchain technology being at the top of the list for hard skills. I’ve been researching the 2 subjects my self and I will give LinkedIn Learning credit for helping me to understand these two skill sets, but where are the classes that teach them in a community college setting? Once I read what soft skills were, I realized that I already had most of them, but emotional intelligence? Never heard of it. Blockchain technology, which is supposed to be bigger than the internet itself; never heard of it. I have been researching on my own as much as possible, but I have a BA and research is something that I do because I’m a curious, life-long learner. Not everyone wants to do research. These skills and classes to teach them should be out there on the course schedule of every college. It seems to me that these would be right up there with the ACA classes that teach you how to be a successful student. What about how to be a successful employee? Isn’t that why we go to school in the first place?

  2. A good article, however, what I find most interesting is their are other schools that are doing exactly what is noted in 2,3,4. Take Brighton College an Arizona school for example. They offer programs in allied health, IT, and recently voluntarily withdrew from the accrediting body they were associated with so they could align to employer demand in a much more nimble manner. Community colleges are still stuck in “not nimble enough” to move at the speed of employer demand. Short term in-demand stackable credentials/certification programs or micro-pathways enable “non-traditional” students the opportunity to put themselves in an upward mobility career.

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