Community Colleges Can Be 'First Responders' in Retraining Displaced Workers


Feb 16, 2017

Adult students attending a computer course

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This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on February 16, 2017.

With the loss of more than 5 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. since 2000, and little improvement in wages over the past decade, the working class is demanding that the government take action to improve employment prospects. Conversations about policies to help displaced workers have largely focused on big-picture solutions such as renegotiating trade deals and pressuring American companies to keep jobs at home. Even if such major changes are made, experts argue they will not be sufficient to reignite such dying U.S. industries as apparel manufacturing and coal—or improve long-term job prospects. They also do little to address jobs lost to automation. What can be done to help those workers who are left behind? The answer may lie in America's community colleges.

Since the Great Recession in the late 2000s, 99 percent of the job growth in the U.S. has occurred in careers that require more than a high school diploma, according to researchers at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (PDF). It's a well-known fact that a bachelor's degree boosts earnings, but an associate degree does, too. Full-time workers who hold two-year degrees earn on average 18 percent more a week than high school graduates, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics.

Community colleges are well-positioned to take on this task. They play a key role in training workers for “middle-skills jobs,” those requiring a certificate or an associate's degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, four of the six projected fastest-growing occupations between 2014 and 2024 are expected to be middle-skills jobs, including wind-turbine service technicians, occupational therapy assistants and physical therapist assistants. Many of the occupations with the most opportunities require two-year degrees or certificates, such as those in health care and technology. While many of these pursuits may be a departure from the manufacturing jobs held by many displaced workers, they offer middle-class salaries and strong future employment prospects in growing industries.

With open admissions policies and relatively affordable tuition, community colleges are designed to be accessible to a wide swath of the community.

Community colleges offer an environment that is particularly supportive for displaced and dissatisfied workers. With open admissions policies and relatively affordable tuition, community colleges are designed to be accessible to a wide swath of the community. Older students, including adults training for new careers, account for more than a third of enrollees. And many programs at community colleges are designed to serve working students, with flexible course offerings that accommodate students with full-time jobs, and “stackable credential programs” that encourage students to start with certificate programs and work incrementally toward higher degrees while earning work experience in their new field. Most of these schools have robust financial aid offices and are increasingly investing in resources to support students who are facing issues that can be related to struggling economically, such as depression, anxiety or homelessness.

Community colleges also can be readily found throughout rural and urban regions, positioning them to reach many in need of training or retraining. More than 40 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. attend community college. In addition, these schools usually have strong connections to local employers and business leaders, and are explicitly focused on serving the community and addressing local workforce needs.

Some obstacles will have to be overcome to ensure community colleges can live up to their potential as first responders when it comes to retraining. For example, policymakers need to find a way to increase school funding, which decreased substantially during the Great Recession and has not recovered in many states. Federal financial aid will need to keep pace with rising tuition costs to ensure every student who wants to go can do so. In addition, low completion rates at community colleges will need to be addressed—only 38 percent of community college students complete a degree or certificate within six years.

Recent efforts to increase the accountability of community colleges and spur innovation and improvement show promise. The Department of Education provides a “College Navigator” tool that increases access to information on student outcomes and allows students to make more informed choices. Policymakers are exploring ways to encourage accountability through funding, including linking state funding to student outcomes, and restricting financial aid for institutions where graduates aren't able to secure jobs and earn enough to pay back student loans. To encourage innovation and improvement, the Department of Education also offers a “First in the World” grant opportunity that provides funding to colleges for developing new programs and practices, studying their effectiveness and replicating those that work.

Community colleges—already on the ground and fit for purpose—may be the country's best “quick response” tool for ensuring that those in need of a job can find one.

Lindsay Daugherty is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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