California’s Community Colleges Weigh in on Barriers to Work-based Learning

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

November 1, 2022

One challenge facing many college students is to identify and pursue an educational pathway that ties directly to both their chosen career path and relevant labor demand. The issue may not be that the student’s preferences or resources aren’t appropriate or sufficient; the problem may be that the pathway they seek still needs to be created. The problem is confounded when the student also needs the ancillary resources necessary to assist their educational efforts. Consequently, many college-age students (and especially Community College students) elect not to pursue higher education at all rather than struggle to find something that they want to do, have the ability to do, and can find a job doing.


Research. Revelations. Relevance.

Today’s higher education system is grappling with how to appropriately train learners to be truly prepared for their work life. At the November 8th  Future of Work Conference 2022, hosted by the Economic and Workforce Development Division (EWD) at Pasadena City College (PCC), panelists will discuss this concern as it relates to work-based learning and on-the-job training. In too many cases, those learners with the most need for such educational opportunities are also the least likely to find them accessible.

This reality is especially true for Community College students, according to a summer 2022 survey conducted by College Pulse (with support from Kaplan) and Inside Higher Ed. That data revealed that 42% of surveyed Community College students reported having had access (virtually or in person) to internship opportunities, compared to 64% of four-year university students. The frustrated young people voiced several barriers that prevented them from pursuing this sometimes critical career-engaging option:

They couldn’t afford to take a non-paid internship, having financial obligations to support themselves and their families.

They didn’t have the time to “work for free” while also attending classes, working for pay, and caring for others.

They needed supporting resources to back them up if they were to focus on an internship or apprenticeship placement. Some struggled to find reliable transportation, while others were experiencing housing or food instability.

The realities for the Community College student body population are, a significant percentage of the time, decidedly different from those of students who attend four-year colleges. The latter group often is populated by learners from financially stable homes, with a broad range of support services available, and who have had exposure to more – and more varied – employment training options.


From the educational and employment perspectives, the reality of lack of access to career-relevant, on-the-job training is equally bleak:

The cultural ‘norm’ of unpaid internships or apprenticeships established this fundamentally inequitable ‘training’ structure decades ago. Wealthier students could afford to work on an unpaid basis because their families supported them during those periods. Not-so-wealthy families did not have the same capacity.

The design and application of today’s “traditional” on-the-job training opportunities were not necessarily intended to benefit the learner. Instead, many existing internships, apprenticeships, and on-site training opportunities are designed to meet the employer’s needs. Without consideration of the influences on the student’s life, employers have no incentive to facilitate flexible work hours or remote work options.

In many cases, the student doesn’t enter the internship position with a fully fledged skill set because their socioeconomic status has not exposed them to conventional work and occupational habits.

Unfortunately, despite these metrics, the overwhelming majority of Community College students surveyed (86%) who had found internship or apprenticeship options declared that their “experiential learning” opportunity was very helpful in preparing them for their future occupations. In contrast, only 62% of students enrolled at four-year colleges had the same sense of success in their on-the-job training position.


California’s Community Colleges Come Together to Examine the Concern

The California Community College Chancellors’ Office (CCCCO) has been working on this puzzle for many years. It has focused its research efforts on evolving cultural, industrial, occupational, and business influences to understand the underlying tensions that exist in those sectors. Its data is now driving its decision-making to reverse obsolete, nonproductive strategies while devising new ways of training a complex and diverse workforce.

In collaboration with its curriculum committee, the CCCCO recently (July 25, 2022) revised its “Work Experience Education” (WEE) regulations to align those rules with the current push to develop work-focused, on-the-job training opportunities. The original WEE rules were adopted in 1971, a full 20 years before the system adopted ‘Workforce and Economic Development’ as its third primary mission. Now recognized as archaic, they were changed to fulfill mandates established by the State’s Vision for Success initiative and to build into the educational infrastructure the supports needed by students whose needs extend beyond the classroom.

The evolving perspective from the State level has encouraged college administrators to find ways to integrate work-based learning options into core curricula so students aren’t compelled to choose one or the other as their primary educational process.

The CCCCO also encourages schools to develop around individual students networks of employers and industry professionals to support them as they progress through training and launch their careers.

And it encourages employers or potential employers to consider creating paid internship and apprentice positions so that students from all economic levels can access that critical occupational training.

In its role as a contributor to the EWD initiative, the CCCCO recognizes that the journey to a fully evolved workforce development-focused Community College system is in its infancy stage. However, combining its efforts with the activities of individual schools, businesses, and industries will eventually lead to a constellation of educational and training options that will resolve many of the community’s challenges. It will:

provide students with well-compensated occupational opportunities,

businesses with a highly skilled flavor force, and

the State with a reliable, robust, fully functional economic foundation.

The cumulative economic impact of hundreds of thousands of community college alums working in California totals approximately $109 billion in annual revenues to the State. Removing the barriers to education and training that prevent hundreds of thousands more potential learners from contributing their effort to the community cause can only help everyone – learners, schools, employers, industries, and the State as a whole.



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