Entrepreneurs: Foundational. Inspirational.

Virtually every business began as an idea. Someone somewhere had a problem with no apparent resolution, so they invented a fix for their issue that turned out to be a good idea for others. The newly minted ‘entrepreneur’ then turned that idea into a business, which attracted customers, and – BOOM! – economic growth began. Consequently, entrepreneurs, the visionaries who see not just what could happen but also look for ways to make it happen, are central to America’s economy and, by extension, its economic growth and prosperity, too.

 

The Entrepreneur: A Unique Economic Force

At heart, the entrepreneur is a risk taker. These enterprising individuals step away from traditional employment processes and pursue an original path toward their personal goals and aspirations. Experts at the Harvard Business School define ‘entrepreneurialism’ as “the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled,” with ‘beyond sources controlled’ meaning a constraint of available resources. These forward thinkers look beyond immediate or existing materials or options to find an improvement to what’s available or to develop a totally new response to a concern. By doing so, they take on risks that don’t appear in front of traditionally employed people:

A financial risk that arises as they contribute their own funds (which they might not recoup) or seek start-up funding (which may have to be paid back), then extends as the product or service evolves and is launched.

A technological risk that requires the product or service around which the business is built to actually achieve the solution it promises. Both its design and construction must be adequate to support the weight of growing consumer demand.

An execution risk that mandates establishing a functioning corporate team that can manage the launch from design through to market.

A demand risk that the buying public is looking for and will buy this particular new product or service.

For many people, these risks are too daunting to consider, so they choose not to pursue the entrepreneurial option as their life’s work.

For others, however, being ‘one’s own boss’ is the epitome of the American Dream. These creatives absorb the four risks as ‘the cost of doing [the entrepreneurial] business’ and move forward despite the potential losses those might incur. By doing so, they step into a critical role in the success of their community and its economy.

 

High Value Justifies High Risk

Entrepreneurs do more than just run businesses, and their contributions to the local, regional, and national economic landscape are significant:

New businesses need new workers, so entrepreneurs also often offer new workforce opportunities.

Their insights about existing products or services frequently trigger new and improved ways of doing things, so they also add innovation to the community.

New products frequently compel the ‘retirement’ of legacy or obsolete resources. Upgrades and updates often translate into improved product quality and higher customer satisfaction.

Often, a new company develops because of and provides service for populations that might not have access to similar resources. Social stressors, economic downturns, and legacy diversity concerns often hinder economic growth in certain neighborhoods. An entrepreneur who seeks to remedy that situation can develop a whole new consumer base, free from the constraints of competition.

Not least, the competition presented by the new company to existing entities within the same market often stimulates improved business efficiencies for both, which can also reduce product or service prices, too.

All of these realities underscore the entrepreneur’s value to the community. New businesses add assets and commodities to the economy while also building its labor force and expanding its resource base.

 

Entrepreneurial Efforts in Changing Times

Today’s entrepreneurial adventurer accepts the abovementioned risks as everyday occurrences within their business-building strategy. What they might not be prepared for or familiar with, however, are the vast changes occurring in today’s markets and industries that are influencing entrepreneurial opportunities. The post-COVID economy is decidedly different from that of five years ago, and both the market and the workforce have changed:

Consumers have evolved. They, too, have embraced today’s advanced digital tools and now expect their product and service suppliers to provide precisely what they want exactly when and where they want it. They are also becoming more invested in long-term relationships with the makers of the products and services they love. In addition to offering a unique and new product, today’s entrepreneurs must also master the tools that connect their companies to their ever-evolving customer base.

Securing the ‘talent’ needed to launch and manage the company is becoming more challenging. ‘Talent’ refers to the population of industry specialists who add the nuance and innovation needed to set the new product apart from its competition. Because of the rapid evolution of technology, many subject matter experts are not also experts in the technologies that are disrupting their industry. Many companies – entrepreneurial or not – are having difficulties finding workers and leaders who have both industrial acumen and technological insight.

The rise of technology – analytics, data lakes, cloud computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), etc. – has upended every industry. Many occupations are now obsolete, and new technologically-based jobs have emerged despite the lack of qualified workers to fill those positions.

Within these parameters of changing circumstances and technological evolution, it’s a wonder that anyone follows through on their entrepreneurial dreams.

And yet, follow through they do. The calendar year 2023 was a boom year for new business openings, even after taking the pandemic’s contraction into consideration. The Home Services sector grew by 32%, with the hotels and travel sector close behind at 28%. Event services and automotives each grew by ~23%, and beauty services, active life organizations, and local service company sectors all posted percentage growth in the teens.

Notably, many of the purveyors of these new companies are from underrepresented communities. In 2023, LGBTQ+ business owners opened 33% more businesses than they did in 2022, and Black and Latino company founders launched 28% more entities than they did in 2022. Data indicates that the population of minority entrepreneurs has grown by over 35% in the past decade, contributing ~$700 billion to the nation’s economy over that time period.

 

Entrepreneurs have played a critical role in developing today’s national and global economies. The continued popularity of the business-ownership trend is equally essential for future economic growth, too.

 

Entrepreneurs: Innovative. Creative. Increasingly Female.

To some, it was obvious that the COVID-driven demise of thousands of jobs would also open doors to new business opportunities. Companies closing left consumer needs unmet, and millions of courageous individuals seized the moment to fill those market gaps with their entrepreneurial goods and services. A significant percentage of those individuals are women, and they are raising the profile of the female entrepreneur higher than it’s ever been.

The markets they entered, however, have evolved significantly in those short four years. These newly minted enterprises are now navigating equally new pathways to economic success and redefining those processes as they go. Adding support to their efforts: Pasadena City College’s Small Business Development Corporation (SBDC) has just opened its Women’s Business Center to ensure that both established and emerging female business leaders have all the resources they need to launch and grow a successful organization.

 

It’s a New Day for Entrepreneurs

How work gets done in 2024 is decidedly different from how those goals were achieved just four short years ago. To succeed, today’s business owners must meld decades-old legacy systems with tomorrow’s cutting-edge technologies and evolving consumer expectations. The challenges they face are significant.

  • Technology alone has rendered many formerly foundational functions obsolete while also offering new capacities and capabilities. The latest digital tools, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) programming, have revolutionized occupations and industries at a pace that far exceeds that of related regulatory and governance standards. Many organizations struggle through transitions from outdated models to current options.
  • Advancing technology not only streamlines existing processes, it also facilitates whole new ways of ‘going to work.’ The ‘gig’ economy (hiring workers for individual projects, not as full- or part-time staff), flexible working arrangements, and remote work, in general, are now commonplace. Companies experience a variety of benefits that arise from this ‘distributed workforce‘ model, including lower office maintenance fees and increased productivity. A notable change for workers: many in this new form of workforce rarely, if ever, meet their colleagues face-to-face.
  • E-commerce is also on the rise, as more organizations aim their sales pitches directly at consumers, bypassing virtual or actual store-front intermediaries. The absence of intermediary boundaries between sellers and buyers gives the entrepreneur more control over the customer relationship – and the data generated by those interactions.
  • A ubiquitous online presence coupled with almost instantaneous communication channels also facilitates collaboration and co-creation among entrepreneurs. Strategic partnerships are born when the ‘cog’ of one small business meets the ‘wheel’ of another, often in the same industry, but not always. These emerging ecosystems clarify the distinctions between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ ways of working and producing, giving both entities access to the broader toolset of the combined pair.

The skillsets needed to implement and manage these innovations are also, in many cases, new to the business and even the industry. Any company that upgrades its technology will also need to upgrade its technology support capacities. AI, in particular, is driving a huge push to develop responsive training programs and protocols as its suite of software programs is so different from (literally) everything that came before. Ironically, many AI and related technology courses are now offered through digital portals, which themselves need development or upgrades to be effective.

Regardless of the gender of their owner, newly launched companies must consider these and many other factors as they work to establish their mark in their new ‘economic neighborhood.’

 

Women Leading the Way

Recent data reveals that women are having a significant and profound impact on the post-COVID economy. According to research conducted by Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP):

  • The number of women-owned businesses nearly doubled that of men-owned companies between 2019 and 2023.
  • Almost 40% (39.1) of all American-based businesses are now owned by women. Over 14 million such companies employ over 12 million workers.
  • The female-led business community alone contributes $2.7 trillion in revenues to the U.S. economy annually.

In fact, the corporate advances made by women throughout and past the pandemic were markedly more impressive than those of men:

  • In 2020, while the world was shutting down, women opened more companies than they closed, while the number of male-owned organizations declined.
  • Women also added 1.4 million jobs during the pandemic, which, in turn, contributed almost $580 billion to the national economy.
  • Over the course of the COVID era (2019 – 2023):
    • the growth rate of women-led firms surpassed that of men by 94%,
    • the rate of employment by female- versus male-owned companies grew by 252%, and
    • the growth rate for revenues generated by women-owned businesses exceeded 80%.

The findings are notable, too, because of the industries in which these advances by female business leaders are being made. Branching out from their ‘standard’ corporate presence (beauty, pet care, and healthcare), women are opening companies in industries where their presence as leaders was previously limited, such as security and surveillance services, legal agencies, and mental and physical health professionals. The finance, real estate, and insurance sectors have seen the most post-COVID growth in the number of women-owned companies.

 

Pasadena City College (PCC) Provides Focused Support for Women Entrepreneurs

The federal government has also focused on expanding the – business ownership opportunity to more women in more industries. Through the auspices of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), PCC’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) (a pillar within its Economic and Workforce division) received funding for one of only 17 Women’s Business Centers (WBC) established nationwide. Of those 17, 13 are based in Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), a U.S. Department of the Interior program. PCC is the only community college in the country to be awarded Women’s Center funding.

In coordination with the SBDC’s already notable success, the WBC will offer services tailored specifically to meet the unique needs of women entrepreneurs. Counseling, training, and technical assistance related to business ownership—financial management, start-up concerns, and marketing, as examples—are provided for free to any woman-owned enterprise, offering support and strategy where it’s needed most. The federal government reports that the number of loans made to women-owned companies is surging and now tops $5 billion per year.

 

The COVID pandemic and its fallout have compelled all company owners to adapt their efforts to address the market, labor, and consumer evolutions that have occurred since 2020. Added focus and funding for female leaders, in particular, both levels the corporate playing field with men while also harnessing uniquely feminine assets and values that have yet to be fully embraced within the corporate sector.

 

Future of Work: Registered Apprentice Programs

For decades, there has been a divide between learning and working. Educational systems promulgated processes that compelled people to choose to either work or go to school but didn’t give them the option to do both at the same time. That reality is changing as the burgeoning economy demands more on-the-line workers, even while the supply of that skilled workforce is currently insufficient.

One response to the challenge is to develop apprenticeship opportunities across industries that train new workers while they’re actually on the job. Utilizing apprenticeships is a historically proven labor-development practice that ensures both a well-trained workforce and a well-employed community. Filling open positions with trainees, rather than waiting until after all training is complete, improves teaching program outcomes, adds valuable resources to the enterprise, and increases employment levels throughout the community. Today, the U.S. federal government is championing its Registered Apprentice Program (RAP) to provide critical connections between the companies needing qualified employees and the eager learners who are looking to fill those positions.

 

America’s Registered Apprentice Program

Administered through the federal Department of Labor (DOL), the RAP gives employers tools and resources to develop the precise style of apprenticeship program that works for their enterprise. It also provides resources for learners who are seeking an apprenticeship.

For Employers/Sponsors:

The RAP uses Registered Apprentice Industry Intermediaries to collect, assess, and educate on apprenticeship opportunities within individual industries. Companies looking to build apprenticeships within their infrastructure can get guidance and technical support from these professionals on establishing and managing employment opportunities for potential apprentices.

The RAP’s ‘Occupational Outlook Handbook‘ provides data and strategies that can direct the details of an apprenticeship, such as entry-level educational drivers, median pay ranges, and even job projections for that position. The handbook parses out ‘occupational groups’ by industry and effort, recognizing that some jobs are valued in many (sometimes all) industries. Apprenticeships for legal, financial, and management positions straddle virtually every sector, while those for architecture and engineering, as examples, will attract a much narrower segment of potential applicants.

The handbook also offers:

a ‘Teachers Guide‘ for the education professionals who work with apprentices in the classroom, and

Subject Area Categories that inform future employers about managing their apprentices, including data on potential pay and benefits, productivity, workplace injuries, and other occupationally relevant issues.

The RAP’s ‘Partner Finder‘ resource connects parties interested in apprenticeships in any capacity.

Employers can actively search for entities that share common industrial traits to find a likely pool of apprentice candidates. Entering occupationally significant keywords and geographical locations into the database flags partnership options that are relevant to the inquiry.

RAP Sponsors are organizations that operate an apprenticeship program. They are responsible for designing apprentice options, overseeing training and development activities, and offering learners hands-on learning and technical instruction for their chosen occupation. They frequently operate also as collaborators with their community colleagues, including schools, industry agencies, and economic organizations.

The RAP’s Standards Builder provides the tools Sponsors need to establish a registered apprentice program within their organization. This resource offers a unique series of tools that combine the requirements of both the employing enterprise and the educational institution that provides the coursework for the position.

The Requirements for Apprenticeship Sponsors Reference Guide walks employers through the apprenticeship development process to ensure they – and the learner – access all available resources.

The Standards Builder User Guide secures the connection between the employer and the DOL, which assures the federal agency that the Sponsor is acting appropriately within the scope of the RAP structure.

Sponsors agree to follow the protocols required by the DOL while also addressing issues that arise within the school setting, including following up on and incorporating the applicant’s previous work experience as an element of the educational credential they’ll eventually receive. Through the RAP, the DOL also offers industry-focused experts who advise company owners about the myriad of nuances involved in establishing apprenticeship opportunities for their organization.

 

For Future Apprentices:

People seeking career training opportunities will find many valuable resources on the RAP website. Services provide direction for potential apprentices from all walks of life, including those who may struggle to find work otherwise:

The website lets users find available jobs and save their job search data, acting as a continuous resource for employment searches. Job seeking can be nationwide or local, directed to specific industries or occupations, or focused on finding an apprenticeship program rather than a job.

Many apprentices are new to the workforce, such as high school or college graduates. They come with few or no skills but offer the employer a ‘blank slate’ to gain the exact worker they need.

Some have faced barriers that prevented their entry into the workforce, including prior incarceration. The RAP opportunity provides resources that help this population find a new life and promising future through apprenticeships.

Its Clean Slate Clearinghouse helps formerly incarcerated individuals ‘clean up’ their criminal record by connecting them to lawyers who can help expunge or mitigate convictions found in publicly accessed permanent databases. Removing these aspects from public view (where possible and appropriate) allows the newly freed community member to avoid being unnecessarily excluded from work opportunities.

RAP’s Reentry Employment Opportunities Program (REO) provides resources directly to entities willing to work with and hire formerly incarcerated people as apprentices or in other employment positions. The focus is on assisting the individual to assimilate back into the community as a contributing and valuable community member.

Service members and veterans also gain resources through the RAP. This population often brings a unique set of skills from their military experience, some of which are not transferable to a civilian occupation. Transitioning any skillset from one employment arena to another takes knowledge and strategy. The RAP combines its opportunities with those already available to these service members, including the GI Bill®, the Veteran’s Readiness and Employment Program for workers with service-connected injuries, and the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeships, which offers resources for former service members with disabilities.

 

The demand for a better-skilled workforce is driven by the multitude of factors that are now impacting America: a fluctuating economy, a wealth of emerging technologies, and an almost unlimited roster of occupational opportunities. Apprenticeships offer a nuanced response to many of the challenges presented by those factors while also allowing the flexibility required to gain precisely the labor force assets that are needed. Embracing the apprenticeship option can reduce or eliminate altogether the divide between education and occupation.

 

Apprenticeships – What, Why, & How

Emerging technology is advancing the American economy in complex and comprehensive ways, and the country’s industrial foundation is struggling to keep up with the changes. Not only are tried-and-true skill sets being rendered obsolete, but resources for upskilling and retraining the workforce are few and far between (at least, so far). Employers needing workers capable of managing the convoluted realities of newly automated systems and workflows are hard-pressed to find them in today’s post-pandemic labor pool.

The situation has triggered a renaissance in work-based learning and on-the-job training programs, with a growing emphasis on apprenticeships. Even the federal government is funding access to and provisioning of these ‘learn while you earn’ opportunities because of the unmatched growth opportunities they represent for the country.

 

The What: Apprenticeships Built America

The practice of developing a workforce ‘on the job’ springs from European feudal origins, and its success as an economic driver embedded it into early North American society as a valuable industrial tool. An apprentice signed on with a ‘master craftsman’ (any tradesperson willing to take on the responsibility of the teacher/trainer role) for up to seven years, learning how to do the work as well as the nuances of its business and administration. When complete, the new ‘journeyman’ tradesperson was free to open a new business under their own name. Benjamin Franklin (printing and publishing) and Paul Revere (silver smithing) both began their careers as apprentices, which underscores how the practice developed not just skills but also skilled business people and leaders.

While its usage dropped off over time with the rise of schools, colleges, and ‘higher education’ options, the inherent value of an apprenticeship remained and is rising again as the current economy struggles to find needed talent in its insufficient and often un-trained (for today’s needs) labor pool.  Nowadays, an apprenticeship is just one of several avenues learners can pursue as they face a sometimes overwhelming array of job and career decisions. For many, the position offers the exact right level of training, work experience, and occupational freedom.

 

The Why: Traditional Education Resources Lack Occupational Focus

The data tells a straightforward story about why on-the-job training is so valuable to so many business owners and their apprenticing staff. A recent Burning Glass study reveals that ‘traditional’ higher education offerings no longer provide or sustain the increase in personal growth and wealth that they once did. An analysis of over 60 million survey responses was stark in its findings: as many as 45% of all college graduates were underemployed ten years after their graduation, a factor that calls into question whether the learning they received was worth the tuition they paid. It suggests that the education provided through the standard high school-to-college process doesn’t also provide the lifestyle those learners seek.

Employers these days are also aware of the skills gap that exists within the college-based talent pool they’re seeing compared to the skill sets they need in their enterprise. Consequently, they are increasingly looking for ‘skill-based’ resumes, not ‘degree-based’ schooling, as they seek to fill the millions of open job positions that dot the nation. The hiring system, however, isn’t yet designed to connect businesses with this population of technologically savvy workers who don’t carry the credentials necessary to attain many of today’s technology-based jobs.

Learners, too, are aware that a straight-up college education might not provide them with the lives they wish to live. A study by the non-profit Educational Credit Management Corporation shows that while half (51%) of today’s high school students are considering going to college, that number is a full ten percentage points lower than it was before COVID-19 hit in 2020. And, of those young respondents, two-thirds (65%) believe that occupational training and learning ‘should’ be done on the job, through internships and apprenticeships, not through traditional college attendance.

The flood of technology into all aspects of the work world has ramped up the demand for well-trained digital technicians, many of whom couldn’t or didn’t develop those skills through traditional college courses or programs. Without those credentials, these learners struggle to find work even though they actually have many of the precise skills that are in such high demand. Schools seeking to maintain enrollment numbers must figure out how to capture and credential these future workers if they intend to remain relevant and profitable.

 

The How: Colleges as Apprenticeship Incubators

In response to these developments, colleges are now ramping up both their technical skills training programs as well as their partnerships with businesses willing to mentor apprentices. By doing so, they are expanding their roles within the economy by providing three foundational services within the apprenticeship and workforce development sector:

As a training provider: On-the-job skills often flow from and integrate with occupational theory; students learn how their emerging skill set advances occupational or corporate goals. Schools have the resources needed to offer this type of cerebral education, while corporate partners provide learners with hands-on, in-the-shop experience.

As a broker between tradesperson and apprentice: The demands of running a business frequently override a business owner’s opportunity to find an appropriate apprenticeship candidate. When working together, the school and the company can define skills, talents, and other relevant work-related criteria that the school can use to attract and direct an appropriate talent pool of potential apprentices.

As an administrator of a formal apprentice development practice such as the Registered Apprentice Program. The U.S. Department of Labor oversees this workforce development strategy that connects future workers with both the training and the employers they seek. As a ‘registered’ apprenticeship, the role guarantees an optimal educational experience that provides the precise scope of training activities and modules needed for the occupation, including:

structured on-the-job instruction designed for the specific job at hand;

supplemental training and education designed to address the needs of the employer and their company;

a safe place to learn while working;

industry-based skills that are currently in demand, and

the credentials needed to find, land, and succeed in the job or career of the learner’s choice.

By stepping into any one of these three roles, today’s colleges are addressing workforce development demands head-on, assisting both their students and their neighboring businesses to succeed in these challenging economic times.

 

The country is struggling to find the well-trained workforce it needs. Today’s colleges are embracing their role as ‘workforce developers’ and are rising to that challenge. They are reinventing themselves as full-service labor force training grounds that provide all varieties of learning opportunities, not just campus-based theory and academics.

Optimizing College Services for Adult Learners

With the influx of so many ‘adult’ learners flooding college campuses these days, it’s a challenge for any institution to keep up with the evolving sets of metrics that that population is expecting. While each individual student poses their own unique set of needs for a successful college journey, as a group, these ‘mature’ learners present a decidedly different trajectory than their younger, less evolved class cohorts. And in many cases, the services they need to succeed are not yet offered as an integral aspect of the higher education strategy.

Fortunately for the learners (and colleges in general), scholars studying the situation have identified where this population needs assistance and how schools can respond to those realities. To ensure the success of this particular student demographic, schools must adapt their processes and programs to fit the current and evolving educational requirements of their older, more experienced learners.

 

 

Barriers and Bonuses: Adult Learners Find Both

The uptick in the number of ‘mature’ students on college campuses indicates a shift in thought about the value of education.

Bonuses:

In some cases, life circumstances have changed and people now have both the resources and the time opportunity to pursue the new goal. In other cases, an existing career requires upskilling or additional training, or the thought of entrepreneurship has finally been prioritized. Even retirees are returning to college classrooms seeking to enhance their lives with more money, more knowledge, or both.

Barriers:

However, the way schools are set up now presents significant challenges to many of these students.

Class calendars often follow the typical school schedule of weekdays from 8 am to 5 pm. Many adult learners have other obligations during these hours that prevent them from attending.

The cost of college can also be prohibitive to a successful college career for adult students. Often, their personal financial situation isn’t conducive to taking on the expenses of tuition and books. Sometimes, their effort is stalled because of the (expensive) need to achieve prerequisites before approaching the desired subject matter. In still other cases, the opportunity for financial aid isn’t clear or hasn’t been shared with them, so they’re unaware of the availability of those support services.

Not least imposing is the technical nature of today’s campuses. Much of the communication between school and student and teacher and student is through digital devices, most of which require relatively sophisticated knowledge about ‘apps’ and related technology. In many cases, older students aren’t aware of the technologies involved or aren’t confident in their ability to master them.

The number of adult learners motivated by the bonuses and not put off by the barriers to higher education is growing, and their presence is significant in colleges around the country. In 2022, almost one in four (23%) of all college students in America were over the age of 25, underscoring the importance to the school of amending the types and levels of services needed to support this burgeoning sector of their student body.

 

 

Opening Educational Doors for Adult Learners

From the school’s perspective, modifying existing service streams to better serve the adult learner population should be a no-brainer. As it has been with all their constituents, easing the pathways into, through, and beyond the higher education experience for the older student both fulfills their mandates as public resources while also cementing their foundation as a critical element of society. Fortunately for college administrators, a noted industry expert offers insights and guidance on how to best serve these learners.

Inside Higher Ed (IHE)

Owned by Times Higher Education, IHE is the higher ed industry’s premier source for information and insights into educational best practices, trends, and more. Its 2023 report, Modernizing Postsecondary Policy to Better Support Adult Learners, specifically addresses how existing policies and practices impede the institution’s ability to better serve this population. It also includes suggestions and steps those schools can take to remediate those barriers for their students. By reworking how higher education resources are offered to optimize the educational success of this group (and other marginalized groups) of learners, the national college network as a whole can generate up to $100 billion each year in increased workforce productivity value.

The IHE suggests five focuses for schools and their constituents to address the unmet needs of their adult learner students:

Credit Transfer Pathways allow those (many, many) students who have some college credits but no college credentials to retain the value of those past courses in pursuit of their new and next educational goals.

Credit for Prior Learning is also an enticing element for adult learners. People who’ve mastered career skills should have those skillsets recognized as they apply them to new subject matters.

Flexible funding options are also critical to the return-to-school project for adult learners. Today, a myriad of obsolete rules and standards render some potential learners ineligible for student loans or other supportive avenues to financial resources.

Current Labor Market statistics should also be part of the reconfiguration process. ‘Workforce training’ was not the basis of educational funding until very recently, yet the demand for workers is pushing these schools to deliver exactly that asset: a well-trained workforce.

Not least significant is the need to provide services tailored to the needs of these older students. ‘Emergency Financial Aid’ opportunities, for example, that can be used to cover childcare costs, transportation, etc., can prevent a drop-out situation when the learner experiences the need for this type of resource (which many will).

A college education offers much more than just additional information and knowledge. It also facilitates improved work opportunities, career options, and enhanced financial capacities. More ‘older’ people recognize these realities than ever before, and today’s colleges are their first and best choice for attaining those assets. Schools can improve their bottom line and community profile by better serving this burgeoning population of adult learners.

Adult Learners: Maximizing the Opportunities

While the vast majority of college students are technically ‘adults’ (over 18 years old), there are age-related strata within that population that distinguish one group of ‘grown-ups’ from another. Traditionally, the typical college student enters straight from high school or perhaps after a ‘gap year.’ Often, these learners have little or no life experience, may not have held a job, and usually don’t carry obligations (children, family, etc.) that require time and attention.

Recently, however, the nature of the ‘typical’ college kid has begun to change. Today’s colleges are now attracting more ‘older’ learners than ever before. A recent survey indicated that, nationally, more than two-thirds of current college students are not ‘typical’ but instead have returned to school after pursuing other life opportunities, such as jobs, careers, child-bearing, etc. (In California, approximately half of the California Community College (CCC) population is over 22 years and therefore, considered ‘adult.’) This ‘older’ population of ‘adult’ students includes anyone between ~22 and 65 years and that arrive on campus not as neophytes but as individuals with life experience and fully formed expectations about the goals they have for their college education.

In many (if not most) cases, these older students do have experiences and skills that provide a foundation for continuing studies and educational development. And they each present a challenge to the school across virtually all of its departments: serving this varied and colorful population requires flexibility to address the needs of each individual and to ensure that every learner receives not just the education they’re seeking but also the support they need to accomplish that objective.

 

Different Learners = Different Considerations

According to research by the American Association of Community Colleges, 57% of all college students are over 22 years old, with 35% between 22 and 39 and 8% over 40. The average age is 27. Women now dominate campuses, too, at 58% women to 42% men. Related data shows how the character of the traditional community college student body is evolving, too:

Almost one in three (32%) is a ‘first-gen’ learner, the first in their family to attend college.

More than one in ten (13%) are single parents.

Almost one quarter (23%) are differently abled.

Nearly one in ten (9%) have already earned at least a bachelor’s degree.

The data reveals that today’s community college administration is more complex than ever before. The influx of ‘adult’ learners, each with their unique needs and expectations, is reshaping the educational landscape. This underscores the need for community colleges to adapt and develop new processes that can effectively serve each student, regardless of their age or background.

 

Adult Learners Add Perspective to the Educational Experience

In many instances, adult learners arrive on campus with a different mindset and expectations than those of their younger, less experienced counterparts. Some of these more mature students have elected a non-traditional path in life and are now picking up the education thread as that opportunity rises as a priority. Others may not have had an earlier educational opportunity at all and are now able to pursue that dream. Some may be completely new to the higher education arena, while others may be returning to complete the diploma or degree process they had abandoned earlier. Still others need ‘upskilling’ to attain a better job for themselves, an occupation for which they don’t qualify but will once they’ve added the necessary credentials that additional schooling will bring.

Not least significant: many people over a certain age who seek a college education do so simply because they feel they can’t reach their full potential without one. This group isn’t always driven by the potential for a higher salary or a broader slate of occupational choices. Instead, they are seeking self-improvement and enlightenment and believe they can achieve those goals in the higher education sector.

Whatever the reason for their late appearance on a college campus, most of today’s adult learners are highly motivated to excel while there, and they work incredibly hard to attain their graduations and credentials.

 

Evolving Support for an Evolving Population

Adult learners also require a wider variety of services and support to progress through to graduation than their ‘typical’ college student colleagues. For this reason, many campus-based services are realigning their models to prioritize their adult students’ needs, even if that means ‘demoting’ school priorities in the process.

Unlike younger, less mature learners, this population is often considered ‘andragynous,’ a term coined by Malcolm Knowles meaning ‘self-directed.’ Adult learners often arrive with the strong intention to maximize their learning opportunities, rely on their reservoir of experience to aid them in the process, and focus on problem-solving as the goal of their effort. They also bring with them the obligations of their personal lives. Some still work full-time and fit in schooling in their off-hours. Others are busy caring for family or community members. Still others may be accommodating emerging physical or mental health issues that frequently appear as aging advances. The college administration must be prepared to deal with all these realities if it intends to ensure its adult learners can achieve their academic goals.

In response to the influx of older students within the college student body, many schools have adapted or are adapting their practices to accommodate this new set of needs. And, as the support innovations roll out, data reveals which practices provide better results specifically within this population:

When they are able to achieve incremental goals, such as completing a course or finalizing a credential, they are more likely to persist through to graduation. Schools that refine their educational pathways to acknowledge this style of motivation will have adult students achieve better success in their educational journey.

Adult learners are more likely to engage with content that is relevant to them and their situation. Unlike younger learners, who are willing to absorb everything presented to them, older students do better when the material resonates with them on a personal level.

And because they arrive with a full set of skills already in place, ‘prior learning assessments’ (PLAs) are helpful in identifying what types of learning they need and which types they’ve already mastered. In many cases, the PLA can also be used to assign credit for proficiencies gained in life and the work world, which can also be stepping stones toward their next credential or degree.

The concept of ‘lifelong learning’ isn’t new, and the burgeoning population of adult learners attending the nation’s community colleges is a testament to the public’s embrace of that notion. Schools that adapt their services and support systems to accommodate each individual – regardless of age or ability – will ensure that their students gain the most value possible from their higher education experience.

 

Higher Education and Justice-Involved Learners

If nothing else, America stands to save a lot of money if it refocuses its management of the country’s incarcerated and post-incarcerated populations. Today’s penal industry exacts significant punishment on its inmates while also compelling them into unemployment, poverty, and worse. The cost to society of running its current ‘justice’ systems is high, both in terms of prison and jail costs and in the economic losses suffered by the inmates, their families, and their communities. Switching its focus from punishment to education would reduce these losses while adding valuable assets to the national workforce.

 

Incarceration is Expensive

Imprisoning people for any reason generates costs in several arenas. Today’s prison and justice systems consume over $80 billion per year, housing the millions of people who reside in America’s prisons and jails. In 2022 alone, over 1.2 million inmates languished in the nation’s prisons, and almost half a million (469,000) more joined that prison population that year. Another seven+ million people went to jail, and, of those, an average of one in four were re-arrested within one year of exiting it. Those ‘justice-involved’ people who also suffer ‘social’ challenges (mental health conditions, poverty, substance abuse disorders, etc.) are often worse off after being released than they were when they entered the system.

Adding to the challenge is the additional $530 billion the country spends supporting the families and communities from which the incarcerated people come.

Not only does the country pay a lot to warehouse millions of inmates, but it also reduces their opportunity to contribute economically back to their community:

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) currently loses over $80 billion per year when formerly incarcerated people are excluded from the workforce.

Not only do those folks not have work, but they also don’t pay local or state taxes that support their communities.

Instead, over one-quarter (27%) of released former inmates rely on publicly funded social services and unemployment resources to live post-incarceration.

Recent research tracked the monetary value of 23 different ‘costs’ associated with incarceration – beyond justice system spending – and estimates that the actual aggregate cost of America’s incarceration industry tops $1 trillion per year, which amounts to 6% of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Fortunately, there’s a better way to manage the challenges posed by people who will not or can’t follow society’s rules: Provide them with the opportunity for an education that alleviates their various stresses and gives them the skills to contribute positively to their neighborhood.

 

Educating Current and Former Inmates Is Good Business

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC) insists that there’s an excellent business case to be made for hiring formerly incarcerated people. Research conducted by that entity reveals that refocusing incarceration time to value education rather than punishment promises a much better net result for both the former inmate and the community and country. Its data suggests that the positive economic factors related to a change of intention for the nation’s prison industry should compel much more investigation and investment in training and rehabilitating these populations:

If these people were welcomed back into the workforce, the GDP could grow instead of shrink. Individual studies show that employing just 100 formerly incarcerated individuals could add $1.2 million annually in earnings and up to $55 million in lifetime post-incarceration income.

Studies also indicate that these populations demonstrate higher loyalty and experience lower turnover than non-justice-involved workers, giving employers a more stable and reliable workforce.

Well-paid former inmates are also much less likely to re-offend or return to the justice system, which completely avoids the costs incurred in those systems.

The data suggests that transitioning both the intent and the practices involved in incarceration strategies to embrace training and rehabilitation would be a much better investment of public dollars. So how might that happen?

 

California’s Community Colleges Reach Out to Justice-Involved Students

Recent social justice developments are driving a change in attitude and focus for the nation’s colleges and universities. In the past, now outdated policies limited access to scholarships, intentionally ignored academic achievements behind bars, and prevented the establishment of college-level courses within a prison’s ‘rehabilitation’ process, all of which acted as nearly insurmountable barriers to upward mobility or personal improvement while or after being incarcerated. Further, in too many cases, those populations most impacted by the inequities were those of people of color; Blacks and Latinos are twice as likely to be incarcerated as their Caucasian counterparts.

In California, the community college-based Rising Scholars Network (RSN) is overriding those outdated models. Emerging from the Corrections to College California initiative, the RSN comprises a majority of California’s colleges that have dedicated resources designed specifically to assist currently or formerly incarcerated students. As a network, the RSN agency works with corrections partners to articulate challenges and find solutions to problems in both the college and prison settings. The project uses resources designed and developed by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) and embraces both those students in prison and those released from incarceration. The initiative offers guidance for educational entities that serve (or want to serve) these populations.

For learners still imprisoned, the ‘education access’ program follows a similar path as that utilized for non-justice-related students:

Building on partnerships with prison employees, the project establishes an on-site ‘campus’ within prison walls that adheres to the constraints of both institutions: the school and the prison.

Guided Pathways is a successful student-focused strategy that leads the learner to programs and courses best suited to their preferences and capabilities.

Changes in language and jargon reduce the stigma created by being incarcerated. Learners are identified as students, not inmates.

As much as possible, college attendees behind bars are treated the same as if they were on school grounds and not in a prison.

Formerly incarcerated learners face challenges, too, related to their previous imprisonment. Typically, this population lacks the financial and social resources that are common for non-justice-involved students, such as access to housing, reliable transportation, and funding opportunities. Schools hosting these learners adopt practices that facilitate as easy a learning opportunity for them as possible:

Enhanced privacy standards ensure their history remains private and in the past.

Faculty and staff are vetted for their comprehension of the justice system so they know the systems from which their students are coming.

Community-based resources directed at the formerly incarcerated are incorporated into program and course plans to ensure the student can access all available assets, not just those located on the school campus.

School counselors can also look for paid work positions such as internships or apprenticeships for the formerly incarcerated, which also opens doors beyond the school to a financially secure future.

The CCCCO administers the ~90 community colleges currently involved in the RSN, which work with correctional facilities to provide programs for youths and adults in the prison system. The programs operate primarily on campus (at 80 schools) but also in youth facilities (34), jails (30), and prisons (25).

 

Today’s prison systems are mired in outdated, unscientific policies and procedures that cost too much in both lives and money. By pivoting their focus to educating—not punishing—their inmates, those systems stand to reduce their costs while providing an almost unmatched resource back to their local and regional neighborhoods: a skilled and educated worker who will contribute to society, not drain resources out of it.

 

The Economies of Incarceration

Pam Sornson, JD

June 4, 2024

The emerging digital economy offers boons and benefits to anyone with the resources and capacity to see and embrace its opportunities. Its technologically enhanced expansion eliminates borders, facilitating access to larger markets and vast numbers of new consumers. Its future promise is almost unlimited as more options, iterations, and assets amplify those that are already driving unprecedented growth.

Not all people can access these options, however. Barriers—both incidental and intentional—often prevent individuals from attaining their fair share of existing resources, leaving them in the uncomfortable situation of having to rely on public services to meet their basic needs. The cost to society of supporting these populations is high, so reducing their numbers and increasing their opportunities for self-sufficiency would provide benefits to both them and their community.

 

The High Cost of Incarceration

One such population is that of the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated adult. Too often, people who have been involved with the criminal justice system are written off as perpetual ‘bad seeds,’ and few resources are made available to them to assist with their rehabilitation back into society. This negative perspective, unfortunately, perpetuates not just the downward economic path of the individual but also an increasing public burden for their support. It’s time to reverse this sad perspective and offer those who’ve paid their ‘debt to society’ the resources and support they need to become contributing members of it instead.

The reality is that it’s not just the prisoner who experiences jail- or prison time. Their immediate and extended family, as well as the community in which they live, also feel the impact of a corrections-system involvement. And while the national ‘cost of incarceration’ is frequently cited at around $80 billion (the actual annual cost spent by governments to house criminally convicted individuals), that sum does not include the myriad of incidental and ancillary expenditures that follow the imprisonment of a single person. Sorting through that data reveals an expanding, community-based economic burden that dwarfs the total expenditures of state and federal prison systems.

The Institute for Justice Research and Development at Florida State University (IJRD) has done extensive research on the direct and indirect costs of incarceration, and its data suggests that, at least from an economic point of view, it may be time to rethink how America manages its criminal justice system-involved population.

 

Economic Impacts of Incarceration on the Individual

The most significant impact on the individual (after the loss of freedom, obviously) is the loss of wages and earning capacity as a consequence of imprisonment. Data indicates that the average prison inmate loses over $33,000 per year (2014 dollars) in earnings, money which would otherwise be spent in the community. Multiply this by the number of prison inmates (1,230,100 at the end of 2022) times the average length of a prison stay (2.25 years), and the lost economic contributions to the national community totals over $90 billion annually.

Additionally, each individual prisoner also suffers a life-long reduction in their earning capacity simply because they have a prison record. Totaling up the aggregate amount of lost lifetime earnings incurred by formerly incarcerated persons equals over $230 billion annually.

 

Economic Impacts of Incarceration on Communities, Families and Children

The communities from which many incarcerated people come also suffer challenges because their typically difficult social circumstances generate criminal behaviors. Despite the assertion that the threat of incarceration deters crime, the data suggests that the act of incarcerating a person actually causes crime rates to increase.

In reports issued over several years, responses to researchers indicate that:

Only one in five formerly incarcerated people experienced a marked deterrent effect post-prison,

while one-third of respondents stated being imprisoned had no deterrent impact at all.

Almost all respondents (92%), however, reported that their experience of prison was like attending a ‘university of criminality’ where they could learn better, more effective ways to commit crimes and avoid subsequent punishments.

In fact, in controlled studies, those justice-involved persons who were sent to prison were much more likely to re-offend within three years after release than those who were assigned probation or other non-incarceration options. Those given probation instead of prison were much less likely to recidivate within that time frame. Called the ‘Criminogenic Effect of Incarceration,’ the research suggests that, at least in some cases, not incarcerating an individual can reduce future crime rates by reducing the number of criminals on the streets.

The incarcerated (or formerly incarcerated) person isn’t the only one impacted by a prison sentence, either. The IJRD report also reveals the negative impacts on their family members, who struggle to make up for the decided gap in their lives due to their family member’s absence. Children whose parents are incarcerated also experience significant hurdles in their development and to their future:

They are five times more likely to go to prison themselves than those children whose parent wasn’t incarcerated. This population alone – incarcerated children of formerly incarcerated parents – costs the system an additional $130 billion annually.

They also often wind up in foster care. An increase in the number of incarcerated women accounted for a 130% rise in foster care cases between 1985 and 2000, which consumed another $5.3 billion of the American budget.

Other research by Washington Corrections Watch uses the term ‘Secondary Incarceration’ to describe the impact of imprisonment on the family of the inmate. This population suffers significantly different effects than the incarcerated person, but suffer they do.

Stress from knowing about the harsh conduct typically meted out by prison staff in a prison setting causes families to suffer, knowing their loved one is suffering, too.

Children who lose access to critically important parental resources are also more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression, and other psychological conditions, which limit their development.

These families are also often stigmatized by their friends and neighbors, or even co-workers and employers who learn about the criminal connection.

The financial challenges that arise from having an incarcerated parent are also significant. These families are more likely to not just be evicted from their homes, but they also face a higher risk of becoming homeless as a result of their corrections connection. Providing support for homeless families with incarcerated members costs the country another $2.2 billion each year.

The research seems clear that incarcerating a person doesn’t provide the values it is designed to create: a reduction in crime and a safer community. There is rarely a corresponding effect of ‘deterrence’ that reduces overall crime. Instead, the nation’s current system of incarceration and criminal ‘corrections’ strategies are generating more and better-trained criminals while also generating billions in added costs to support them and their families as they struggle to survive without their family member’s presence. Through this lens, it appears that both federal and state governments are losing more money when they incarcerate people than they would generate if they harnessed that population as workers/economic contributors instead.

 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) focuses on equity principles as well as economic growth and includes people impacted by incarceration within its purview. The nation’s college system is now building better resources for ‘justice-impacted students.’ Our next article looks at how outreach to these tender populations promises to both reduce generational criminality while also building a stronger, more inclusive workforce.

IIJA in Action: California’s Infrastructure Upgrades

Pam Sornson, JD

May 21, 2024

The State of California has fully embraced the opportunities arising from the Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). State leaders have been strategizing which projects are most worthy of those newly furnished funds, and its primary focus is its infrastructure. Thousands of miles of roads, tracks, bridges, etc., thousands of power lines, poles, and stations, and countless runs of water supply lines have all gone decades without adequate inspections or refurbishments. At the same time, emerging technological and industrial upgrades also attract significant attention due to their promise of faster, better, and more comprehensive services. Not surprisingly, California is, again, positioning itself as a national leader by using this once-in-a-lifetime moment to enhance its available assets (legacy, emerging, and tried-and-true) to improve its economy and the lives of its residents.

 

The IIJA Delivers California’s Future

California’s allocation of IIJA funding—$180 billion over ten years—will go a long way toward alleviating the stressors currently threatening the State’s foundational functionality. In addition to improving roads, power systems, water systems, etc., spending to date also includes projects that address many of the State’s underlying equity concerns. As well, those dollars will fund over 400,000 new jobs as workers are hired and trained to fill job openings that don’t presently exist.

Governor Gavin Newsom and his team have distinguished eight overarching project categories that encompass the fundamental elements of a busy, thriving community:

Broadband Internet projects will ensure all Californians have access to internet connectivity, regardless of where they live. In Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley, for example, the money is funding a cooperative-owned digital network to serve several communities.

Clean energy and power projects will revamp the energy grid to facilitate the achievement of the State’s climate goals. In Lancaster, almost $8 million will be used to convert unrecycled mixed waste paper into renewable hydrogen.

Environmental remediation and restoration projects will clean up the messes made by old-style, legacy infrastructure systems and processes and return local environments as close as possible to their original condition. Millions of dollars are aimed at remediating the effects of wildfires and floods across the state and, more locally, also restoring the Los Angeles River ecosystem.

Semiconductor projects will both ensure an abundant supply of technological resources to fuel anticipated growth as well as develop the workforce needed to maintain this growing industrial sector. In Santa Clara County, IIJA funds are paying apprentices to learn how to make the chips that run the world’s computers.

Streamlined project’ funding boosts the state-based resources already invested in existing projects, moving them forward faster and more efficiently. In one instance, Newsom is directing the money to complete the construction of 1,500 new homes in downtown L.A., which will inject upwards of $2 billion into the local economy, as well as generate over 10,000 union jobs.

Transportation project investments include simple enhancements, such as installing crosswalks in several counties, as well as larger, more complex opportunities, such as revamping the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.

Water-focused projects include restoring the Santa Monica Bay Estuary (and its kelp forests and abalone populations) and ensuring groundwater reliability for recycled water supplies.

Zero-emission vehicle projects are becoming the economic drivers for the future. IIJA resources are being used to fund projects developing and installing electric vehicle charging stations, electrified school buses, and zero-emission transport trucks.

Already, California’s government has allocated over $41 billion to move its activities away from fossil fuels, repair its bridges and road systems, and restore natural spaces to their original state.

 

The IIJA Moves California Toward True Equity

Not least, IIJA spending projects must also incorporate equity principles to ensure that all communities benefit fairly from its enrichment. The goal here is to alleviate environmental and social realities that were built decades ago into legacy politics and structures. In too many cases, ‘official’ policy has isolated ‘disenfranchised’ neighborhoods (People of Color, varied ethnicities, those who are economically challenged, etc.) in polluted, un- or underserved locations. The federal Justice40 initiative mandates that 40% of federal funds be directed at these communities that have been marginalized by the discrimination inherent in these discriminatory rules and practices.

The Justice40 Initiative flows from President Biden’s position that public investments should reduce and/or eliminate the consequences of failed social policy while also focusing on cleaning up its mess. Early into his first term, he issued two Executive Orders that explain and define his purpose:

Executive Order 14008, issued February 2, 2021, announced Biden’s strategy to Tackle the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. This sweeping revision of overarching national policies intends to build climate and social justice initiatives into virtually everything America does at home and around the world. In addition to including climate concerns in every international action and agreement, the Order also mandates that 40% of federal funds used in state or local infrastructure investments must be used to mitigate the errors of the past. One California project illustrates how this mandate can be met. Caltrans, California’s transportation agency, is receiving $1.86 billion for transport-related projects. Of that balance, $698.7 million (37.6%) is allocated to micro- or small-sized businesses, almost all of which would have no chance of contract participation without the federal government impetus.

Executive Order 14096, issued April 2023, aims at Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All. In this mandate, the President directs federal agencies to ‘disaggregate’ environmental risks, exposures, and health data from ethnic and other ‘equity’ principles (race, income, national origin, etc.). It also requires an assessment of data collection methodologies to remove patterns of ongoing or historical race- or ‘other’-based discrimination, ensuring that information related to all affected people is accurately contained in the revised documents, policies, and practices.

Several other Executive Orders buttress these two, underscoring this administration’s focus on improving the lives of all United States residents.

 

The combined efforts of California’s Governor Newsome and America’s President Biden are laying a new clean, inclusive, and fair foundation for the State of California, and the federal dollars pouring into state coffers are already building on that new resource.

IIJA in Action: California’s Expanding Workforce

Pam Sornson, JD

May 21, 2024

Infrastructure development breeds employment, apparently. As a beneficiary of President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law on November 15, 2021, California is receiving billions of dollars over a five- to ten-year period to revamp and improve its foundational infrastructure—its roads, energy systems, and natural resources. Additionally, and as a condition of accepting those funds for state-based infrastructure projects, recipient states must allocate a percentage of them to alleviate long-entrenched biases and inequities.

California is meeting the equity aspect of the deal by engaging and hiring thousands of small businesses to participate in completing IIJA projects. As a consequence of those investments (and as of September 25, 2023), more than 87,000 jobs have already been created in the State, and thousands more are on the books for development and deployment.

 

A ‘Just-in-Time’ Opportunity

The IIJA’s focus on job development couldn’t come at a better time for California. The State was hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and has struggled to recover to its earlier, pre-COVID employment numbers. In March 2024, California had the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 5.3%. High unemployment rates have a significant and negative effect on their communities.

People without jobs generate a higher demand for public support and services.

Unemployed people are also less likely to shop, so their financial contribution to their community is reduced.

Long-term unemployment drains public coffers while eroding the quality of life for those who can’t find work. The IIJA and California’s strategy to improve its foundations (physical and social) will reduce the number of unemployed people and the negative impact that status has on the community.

 

Equity Identified

One unique type of entity that is singled out for enhanced IIJA attention is the ‘Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE).’ Now championed by the Federal Department of Transportation (DoT), these usually smaller organizations have been battling the ongoing biases and discrimination often embedded in publicly funded transportation projects for years. To be considered a DBE, at least 51% of the company’s ownership must be held by ‘socially and economically disadvantaged individuals‘ who are also active in daily management and control efforts. Sadly, the DoT presumes that Hispanics, African Americans, Asian-Pacific and Subcontinent Asian Americans, Native Americans, and women are socially and economically disadvantaged, so businesses owned and run by members of those populations automatically qualify as DBEs. Companies without an automatic qualification must meet financial, size, and valuation standards to qualify for federal projects as a DBE. It is precisely these smaller, diverse entities that the IIJA intends to help by ensuring they have access to the same federal resources as their larger competitors that don’t face similar size or ethnicity challenges.

In addition to focusing on DBEs, the IIJA is also invested in improving the conditions in disadvantaged communities, those locales where residents struggle to maintain their health, have limited or no transportation options, and few meaningful employment opportunities. The federal funds will now enhance California’s Active Transportation Program (ATP), which expands transportation options to include those that provide health benefits, such as walking or bike riding. In many California locations, especially those in disadvantaged communities, there are no facilities for these types of transport, so building out that infrastructure is as critical to the project’s success as it is to get those residents moving.

 

Jobs Emerging with IIJA Funds

California’s vision for its IIJA allocation encompasses many new avenues of opportunity within foundational systems, so it’s a true boon for those seeking new work or a career in a new field. The word ‘infrastructure‘ itself encompasses virtually all the systems and services that facilitate a social organization’s functionality, and Newsom’s strategy attempts to inject resources across that full-service spectrum. The project expects to train and employ thousands of workers to achieve its goals, so many jobs are opening now, and many more will come over the next five to ten years.

Where Will Those Jobs Be?

A quick view of the allocation of IIJA dollars reveals precisely where the money will go in California and for what purpose. To assess and structure the deployment of the financial input, the federal government presumes that $1 billion invested funds 13,000 jobs, so reviewing the allocation strategy reveals the industries and sub-industries that will grow their workforce because of the IIJA:

Rebuilding the State’s transportation system is the most significant investment, and that overarching focus will generate thousands of jobs. Doing the math suggests that the $67.5 billion in road and bridge repairs alone would support a new workforce of over 870,000 employees.

Enhancing the transportation system is also in the works in the form of electric vehicles (EVs). While the IIJA anticipates a national network of EV charging stations, California can seek up to $3 billion to build out that system within its borders. Those funds would hire up to 39,000 workers.

The State is also considering another $100 million (1,300 jobs) to build out its broadband networks. The COVID pandemic revealed the challenges caused when people have no reliable form of communication; over half a million residents currently have no access to internet services. Additionally, the IIJA comes with an Affordability Connectivity Benefit that will reduce the cost of Internet access for over 10 million ‘modest means’ Californians.

Climate change is a central issue in the IIJA and California’s infrastructure strategy. Almost $140 million (1,800 jobs) will be spent on fire prevention, and another $3.5 billion (45,000 jobs) will fund weatherization projects across the State.

Clean water matters, too, and legacy lead pipes threaten the health of thousands of Californians. The IIJA provides $3.5 billion (45,000 jobs) to fund repairs and replacements to the water system’s infrastructure.

Air travel has evolved well beyond the capacity of many of California’s airports. With the IIJA’s $1.5 billion (19,000 jobs) contribution, many of the State’s air terminals will be updated and made safer.

The IIJA intends to rebuild and upgrade the nation’s infrastructure. California’s state-based investments combined with IIJA funds will have a decided impact on the safety and security of its infrastructure, and the workforce that grows as a result of that effort will have an equally significant impact on its economy. It’s a win-win-win all around.

 

AI in College: A Tool Without Training

Pam Sornson, JD

May 7, 2024

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is permeating every corner of society and has been for a few years. That reality is driving demand for AI technicians and programmers in almost all industries. Unfortunately, while the use of AI is accelerating, the development of a well-trained AI technical workforce is lagging far behind, and companies are clamoring for workers who can help them achieve their AI goals. In many regions, including California, the local community colleges are often seen as ground zero for the generation of new educational paths to AI comprehension and mastery.

 

‘Use’ Does Not Equal ‘Understanding’

For many AI users, early engagement with the advanced technology didn’t even register as an event. As organizations embraced and embedded into their services the cost savings of chatbots for customer service and robots for manufacturing, their consuming public was left out of that adoption information loop. Instead, those customers and colleagues simply continued to engage with the entity, unaware that they were now working with a digital program and equally unaware of the technological advances being made behind the scenes.

That reality reveals the challenge that many enterprises are dealing with today: using the technology is – at least for the moment – infinitely easier than introducing it to existing systems and workflows. AI’s architecture is different from traditional computer programs and apps and, in many cases, renders those legacy activities obsolete. Consequently, many company owners, agencies, and organizations are seeking resources to assist them in designing and implementing new AI systems into their existing infrastructures and then maintaining those capacities over time. In short, they are looking for an AI-savvy workforce that does not yet exist.

 

New Programs Require New Practices

America’s higher education system also faces a shortage of AI instruction courses. While many schools currently use the technology in at least some of their departments and divisions, there are very few training opportunities available to ensure new users can master and optimize their use of the latest digital tools. One researcher clarified the extent to which both K-12 and higher education schools use AI now and provide training for it:

Only one in four survey respondents acknowledge that their school has put intentional limits on the use of AI (specifically ‘generative’ AI) by its educators and staff. Eighteen percent (18%) report that their school is working to identify appropriate use cases for AI applications, while 5% say its workforce can use the software for limited purposes. Two percent (2%) report that their institution bans the use of the technology by teachers and staff altogether.

Of those schools that have adopted the tech, more than one in three (37%) reported that they didn’t know how it was being used on campus. Less than a third could articulate how it was being implemented at their schools:

Teaching respondents were using AI to plan lessons (34%), create assignments (30%), create course content (29%), and design coursework (18%).

One in five administrators (20%) use AI to automate or streamline routine activities.

Perhaps most notably, almost one in three respondents (32%) reported that their school wasn’t offering any AI training or, if it was, they didn’t know about it. Further, while 46% of responding schools were offering AI training to their students, only 37% were providing training for their educators, and 27% were providing training for their staff.

The survey results indicate that learners, teachers, and administrators are using AI more frequently in America’s school systems, even though they’ve not been trained on how to implement or manage it. Without that knowledge or skill set, users – and their schools – risk making errors they do not understand that can cause consequences they can’t anticipate.

 

New Practices Require New Skills

At the same time, across the country, few educational resources are available that provide credentialed AI design and development training. Rather than develop such a program designed to teach AI theory, design, and practice, most schools are simply adopting the AI programming already available through today’s immense digital platforms. And while most standardized AI systems function well for their purpose, they are not designed to address the needs and demands of specific user groups or populations. Instead, what is needed are the introductory and foundational AI courses that generate the AI-based knowledge, comprehension and skill sets that are now so highly in demand.

Two large digital platforms have been actively engaged with schools to develop specialized, AI-focused courses and programs designed to meet both academic and industry standards.

The first ‘official’ AI degree, an associate degree in machine learning and AI, was launched in 2020 through a partnership between Arizona’s Maricopa Community College and the  Intel Corporation. Intel adapted its European ‘AI for Youth‘ syllabus as per the specific needs of those community colleges, assisted in training staff and faculty, and was instrumental in its adoption by the schools.

Amazon’s AWS is also actively engaging with academia to both advance AI resources in higher education and overcome inequities found in those systems. Its Machine Learning University has been launched in several minority-serving institutions (MSIs), community colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to teach database, machine learning (ML), and AI concepts. The first step in its training program is to educate the educators on the science behind and practices involved in artificial intelligence programming.

At present, California’s UC and CSU systems offer only a few master’s degrees related to AI development; there are no associate or bachelor’s degree paths at present within the state.

 

AI has erupted into the general public’s consciousness without the slow and measured ‘introduction-education-implementation’ process that typically precedes a whole-community transition from one system to the next. However, the speed at which the tech has been adopted has also eroded the opportunity to ensure appropriate and ethical use of the new digital assets. Further, the unique skills and digital insights needed to design an AI infrastructure are complex and must be mastered if the newly generated system is to replace legacy technology while maintaining or enhancing productivity.

AI in College: The Advent of AI Education

Pam Sornson, JD

May 7, 2024

Yes, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is everywhere these days, sometimes visible, most times not. Learning that it is ‘out there’ and in use is one thing; most people can now discern when they’re interacting with a robot, and they probably recognize that many of the appliances they use are built by robots in factories.

However, to ensure a full embrace of the burgeoning digital opportunity, those same people must learn a whole new bag of computing tricks, as do the systems with which they work. The challenge they face is that there is a woeful lack of training available that teaches anyone the basics of AI (how it works, how to set it up, how to manage it), let alone goes further to teach how to use it in commercial settings to enhance profitability and efficiency. Detecting, containing, and recovering from fraudulent AI applications is another educational avenue that is yet to be built. Developing a workforce capable of meeting these emerging demands is the next frontier in public education at all levels.

Fortunately, America’s community colleges are taking on the exercise of teaching the masses about AI’s benefits and threats. In California, these higher education schools are gearing up their resources to become the AI training centers of the future, which is, in this case, tomorrow.

 

AI Training – Sooner is Better than Later

Perhaps the biggest challenge involved in developing a comprehensive AI curriculum is that there are few readily accessible guidelines or parameters on how to do that. The adoption of the technology has been swift, growing much faster than the adjunct education resources needed to train users on its safe deployment or management. That education gap is one reason why it poses as much threat as it does benefit:

AI is already enhancing criminal activities (deepfakes, phishing, and malware, to name just three), and its potential for illicit use is as great as it is for positive advancements.

In February, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made AI-generated, automated ‘robocalls’ illegal because of their capacity to extort money from unsuspecting consumers.

Its unfettered use in public systems presents an immense problem. Already embedded in financial services, public safety, and infrastructure systems, AI programming poses threats to national and global power grids, logistics networks, and military strategies if utilized for nefarious purposes.

So far, only the European Union has introduced AI standards (EU AI) that are directed (like its General Data Protection Regulation – the GDPR) at ensuring the technology remains safe and trustworthy. America’s government leaders have yet to publish a formal or unified set of standards similar to those of the EU (although many government agencies are working on their own AI concerns), and no entity has yet established an educational approach to AI usage that comprehensively encompasses all of its aspects and opportunities. There are, however, schools around the country that have been working on this issue for some time and have insights to offer anyone investing in building a college-level program for AI programming.

 

Embracing AI Foundations

Community colleges in ArizonaTexas, and Florida have recently unveiled their AI courses for both associate and bachelor’s degrees, which they revealed at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) annual convention in April. Maricopa Community College was the first school to launch an associate certification in AI and machine learning (ML) in 2020, with the help of Intel Corporation. Intel adapted its European-based “AI for Youth” program to suit the needs of an American community college, and it was that foundation that gave rise to the new educational opportunity.

The AACC conference also provided a platform for schools and AI experts to collaborate on what AI training could look like and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do when developing such a program.

DO reach out to AI industry leaders, such as Intel, Microsoft (which is already working with the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD)), and Amazon (which developed its Machine Learning University—MLU—specifically for community colleges).

DO look to local companies and businesses as collaborators for training specifics. They, too, are facing the AI juggernaut and need a workforce resource to help them master the new capacities.

DON’T stay focused on budget. Yes, the needed updates and upgrades will come with added costs; however, the long game suggests that the investments will result in improved processes across all college sectors and, especially, in the local economies.

DON’T leave faculty training out of the mix. Too many schools focus on training students but miss the opportunity to upskill their in-house teachers and faculty members.

One of the most important notes developed during the AACC discussion: be aware of adult learners. Thousands of well-employed workers and professionals need AI upskilling, too, not just the typical community college youth population. Serving these groups will require modifying course times, adding online options, and flexibility in program parameters.

 

California’s Higher Education AI Initiatives

California’s community colleges are also focused on AI developments within their spheres of influence. The California Community College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) is working with leaders across the state to understand the scope of the programming and how it already impacts each school. In addition to ensuring the software provides educational benefits (individualized learning options and enhanced research and creativity opportunities), schools are also concerned about reducing the potential for academic dishonesty, which erodes the quality of any education.

Introducing new AI-focused programs into the California Community College system requires a formal adoption of the ‘discipline’ by the organization’s Academic Senate (ASCCC). In late September 2023, that entity received a formal “Revisions to Disciplines List Form” submission to add “Artificial Intelligence” as a new discipline in higher education. The submission lays out the need for such a revision:

The submission form notes that there are only six Master’s in AI and ML degrees available in the UC (Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, and Riverside) and CSU (SanFrancisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles) systems, but no bachelor’s or associate’s degrees are offered anywhere.

There is currently an ‘undersupply’ of AI workers across the state. There is a projected gap of over 20,000 AI-focused workers annually in the Bay area alone.

Ten letters of support accompanied the submission, issued by one California State University (San Jose), five community colleges (Santa Ana, Mission, Evergreen, San Mateo, and Folsom), three industry partners (Intel Corp., Amazon Web Services, and Sustainable Living Lab), as well as personal endorsements from the North and Far North Regional Consortiums.

With demand for AI-trained workers rising in all sectors, a well-thought-out educational program to build that workforce is needed.

Despite its prevalence in so many of life’s arenas already, AI remains an unmanaged, misunderstood resource that can cause significant harm and also great good. It is critical that communities invest in building the educational resources needed to control it and optimize its use for appropriate purposes. It’s gratifying to see how America’s schools and businesses are partnering to provide their communities with that resource.