Community Colleges and the Future of Workforce Development

Pam Sornson, JD

Community colleges serve many purposes. For some people, community colleges are thought of as a stepping stone on a path to a four-year college degree. This is especially compelling for individuals who may not have the time, money, or academic scores to initially matriculate into a four-year university. Others may view community colleges as a viable alternative to earn important professional credentials or an associate’s degree. Seniors often look at community colleges for academic enrichment programs, well after they’ve completed their work lives. So in many respects, community colleges are defined differently by those who enroll in them. From remedial studies, to professional certifications, to a path to a bachelor’s degree, to post-career enrichment, community colleges serve a range of needs.

At the recent National College Access Network’s annual conference in Indianapolis, there was some concern that many companies are unable to find qualified job candidates. In fact, in a 2016 survey, 46% of American employers reported difficulty filling positions due to a lack of qualified applicants, but the shortage isn’t just limited to entry or lower-level positions. A Business Roundtable survey found that 94% of CEO’s reported problematic skill gaps for their companies ran the gamut from entry-level to advanced, highly technical positions.

All this got me thinking about community colleges and the roles they play in American life. Community colleges can be great places for people to get skills training that will allow them to get good paying jobs, while also getting the broader, liberal arts education that will help them become successful employees. Technical skills are important, but so are skills in communications, problem solving, critical-thinking and teamwork.

So, why not combine both? Community colleges already have experience teaching technical skills and providing hands-on training for a myriad of job fields. They also provide the basics for a liberal arts education, in preparing students to earn an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year college.

Businesses have immediate hiring needs and many students have immediate job needs. Both companies and individuals also have longer-term needs. Companies want skilled employees who can manage change and reinvent themselves to accommodate ebbs and flows in their business. Workers want security and an opportunity to grow in their careers.

There is a perfect opportunity here for community colleges and local businesses to band together to create workforce development programs that create skilled workers who also have the “soft” interpersonal skills to keep them relevant and able to adjust to changes longer-term.

One way to potentially think of this is as a modern version of the traditional apprenticeship model with a focus on not only the here and now, but the longer-term as well. Courses that focus on technical skills training and a specific field of knowledge could be combined with programs focused on critical thinking, verbal and written communication and time management.  Both sides of the equation need to be mapped to achieve similar goals. They need to equip the student with the essential knowledge they need to join the workforce and excel not only initially, but to have the background to steadily move forward.

To get an expert’s thoughts on the power of workforce development, I spoke with Andre Williams, a Bronx born, African-American business owner and welding instructor, who has spent the last 20 years growing businesses across various construction fields and who has focused his career on helping to foster economic empowerment through tradeswork.

“The supplemental courses afforded students pursuing technical training and certification are vital,” says Williams. “Courses that can accompany technical training are courses like project management, autoCAD training, communication, and blueprint reading and drafting. These courses are not only professionally enriching, but they also empower young men and women without social capital to develop business acumen, strategic communication skills and dynamic networks.”

Like many good ideas, successful implementation involves a cost. For many of these specialty classes, there is expensive but necessary equipment and expert professors that need to be hired. Here there is an opportunity for partnerships between community colleges and companies. Companies can partner with colleges and help them to design the courses and possibly also help them defray costs associated with new outlays for technology or other resources needed. In exchange, students might perform internships at these same companies and once they graduate, they would certainly provide a pool of more highly skilled employees from which to recruit.

Williams agrees that these workforce development programs are they key to developing well-rounded employees. He should know, he’s had the experience firsthand.

“I am a testament to the multi-generational impact access to skilled union employment affords hungry young men and women,” says Williams. “Union employment through the skilled trades have been and remains one of the strongest gateways from poverty to the middle class in the United States. Community-based training and development combine skills training with access to social networks and capital, cultivating the next generation of prepared, diverse young people ready to work and thrive.”

On that note, here’s my list of six things, I believe are necessary to create successful workforce development programs:

  1. Share the upsides. Community colleges offer companies a diverse potential recruitment pool nearby to their operations. Company partnerships offer community colleges an additional level of work preparedness, which underlines why many individuals enroll to begin with.
  2. Focus on motivation. Many students at community colleges already hold full-time or part-time jobs. Some work at multiple jobs during their enrollment. These students have demonstrated their drive and recognize the values of employment skills. Training and mentorship opportunities, even in the absence of formal internships or work-study programs, can plant the seeds for grooming future job candidates.
  3. Benefit from diversity and inclusion. Some companies may have trouble recruiting the diverse workforce they would prefer from existing outreach efforts and recruitment channels. Community colleges can offer a terrific complement to these efforts.
  4. Share technology resources. Many community colleges have well-equipped computer labs and well functioning online platforms for course delivery. Companies may have their own telecommunications protocols. It might be beneficial to audit each organization’s respective resources and design programs that make the best use of the combined technology available between the local community college and partnering business.
  5. Create a leadership pipeline. Identify and reward high performing employees by placing them in a leadership track that offers advanced education, including college-degree attainment, upper-level professional certifications, or management skills. This may require flexible work schedules to align with classroom requirements, but the benefit in terms of employee retention and upskilling should more than compensate. It can also serve as a recruitment incentive for new employees.
  6. Don’t stop learning. Learning is a life-long process. Students may understandably be focused on getting a foothold into the field they choose to pursue. And companies have bottom-line, quarterly results to make. Nonetheless, students should see their longer-term paths as a constant toggle between job opportunities and training and educational enrichment. Ideally, they might both be accomplished within the same organization, but not necessarily.  Companies want to retain great employees. But, they may not always have the ability to fully support their educational progression. It’s important to recognize this symbiotic relationship between private businesses and higher education institutions. Both can benefit from working with each other to make transitions as easy as possible for their students/employees. That in essence, defines a successful community college-local employer partnership.


Apprenticeships – What, Why, & How
IIJA in Action: California’s Expanding Workforce
AI in Education: Addressing Obstacles to Open Opportunities