The Community Colleges Moment: the Easy Metaphor of Workforce Training

UV Letter - Volume II, #6

Q: How do you get an English major off your porch?
A: Pay him for the pizza

This is a joke we’re hearing more frequently these days. It comes from last fall’s Occupy movement as well as from two direct effects of the recession: (1) Radically increased awareness of the issues of college affordability and student debt; and (2) High unemployment while a significant number of high- skill jobs go unfilled.

The result is that community colleges are enjoying an unprecedented moment in the sun. It’s rare that a month goes by without a visit to a community college by the President or Vice President. When they visit, they talk about affordability and about community college programs that provide workforce training. On one recent visit, President Obama proposed an $8 billion community college-to-career fund to train 2 million people for “high-growth jobs.” In Boston last month, Secretary Duncan noted that more and more graduates of four-year universities are enrolling at community colleges “to get that technical training to get a real job.”

We hope community colleges are enjoying their moment, because it may be fleeting. With regard to affordability, community college tuition levels are low not because the programs are inexpensive to deliver or efficient, but rather as a result of direct financial support from states. As a result of reduced state funding, tuition is increasing faster at community colleges than at four-year public, private or for-profit institutions. Community college tuition will remain a relative bargain for students who are able to get in the door and in a seat for required courses. But reduced state support is also creating an effective shortage of seats, further depressing persistence and completion rates, which were already the lowest in higher education. The spotlight currently focused on community colleges is starting to reveal these cracks.

More notable for higher education policy is the lionizing of workforce training programs at community colleges and its natural corollary: taking the liberal arts down a notch. “There’s mismatch between the jobs we’re trying to create and the graduates that are being produced,” says J.D. Chesloff, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. This view has become conventional wisdom among policy makers and influencers. A recent article in the Boston Globe asked why graduates of our four- year universities don’t have job skills. “It’s not just a disservice to students; it’s a threat to the nation’s economic viability.”

Referencing 120,000 unfilled jobs in Massachusetts, the Boston Globe article highlighted a workforce training program at North Shore Community Colleges that is a collaboration between the college and General Electric to train machinists – a “new kind of program that is being closely watched by industry executives and policy makers alike… a program connected to the world of work” that guarantees “useful skills” and virtually guarantees a job that will pay over $60,000. Other workforce training programs in Massachusetts include partnerships between Berkshire Community College and General Dynamics, and between Northern Essex Community College and Raytheon.

These innovative partnerships are positive. And some who view such programs as exactly the tonic higher education needs point to Germany where integrated technical workforce training is the norm. The problem, of course, is that manufacturing represents a smaller portion of economic activity in the U.S. than in Germany. There are certainly some manufacturing jobs where better integration with employers and on-the-job workforce training built into degree programs makes sense. And we share the view that manufacturing in the U.S. is likely to undergo a renaissance in the coming years, driven by increased transportation costs, the Maker movement and innovations like 3D printing. But for now, relatively few of these open jobs are in manufacturing. The vast majority are in services. So few serious economists believe that manufacturing – or workforce training -- is the antidote to America’s economic doldrums.

It turns out that workforce training is actually an easy metaphor representing what employers really want. And this easy metaphor has led the current Administration to make the mistake of elevating community colleges at the expense of four-year colleges and universities, bachelor’s degrees, and the liberal arts.

First, every employer survey demonstrates that employers are demanding employees with bachelor’s degrees. Bachelor’s degrees, which used to be the sine qua non of white collar professions, are now virtually required across all professions. So it is a category error to disregard the bachelor’s degree credential and the institutions that offer them as a result of the fact that a large number of recent college graduates are currently baristas and waiters.

Second, employers are not looking for colleges and universities to launch innovative new programs. They simply want graduates from existing programs to demonstrate competencies in specific areas. The notion that employers want machinists while college people just want to teach Shakespeare – i.e., employers are from Mars while academics are from Venus – is a false dichotomy once the metaphor of workforce training is unpacked.

Here’s what we think this appealing metaphor actually means, as interpreted from employer survey data:

1) Employers are seeking graduates with better quantitative skills. This is often confused for technical, job-ready skills when in reality what’s needed are basic numeracy and quantitative problem-solving skills. It’s indisputable that the U.S. economy needs more STEM graduates. But many entry-level jobs in STEM fields can be filled by numerically-literate graduates from the humanities and social sciences. So while colleges and universities do a good job of enforcing distributional requirements, too few courses in the humanities and social sciences have any quantitative or problem-solving component. This needs to change.

2) Employers also want graduates with a better sense of career direction, and how their education relates to the job they are seeking. They believe this can be achieved through more faculty-assessed internships, community-based projects, and senior projects. Such initiatives should be standard across all programs of study, even in the wooliest outreaches of the humanities.

While workforce training programs accomplish both objectives, they are far from the only vehicle for doing so. If colleges and universities can address each need separately and make them integral to their four-year liberal arts degrees, maybe then President Obama and Vice President Biden will start visiting universities again. And maybe then English majors will stop delivering pizza and start one of those unfilled high-skill jobs.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV expects to set new standards for student outcomes and advance the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.

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