Dr. Su Jin Jez Connects Education to Employment

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

December 6, 2022

To quote Dr. Su Jin Jez, Los Angeles County should consider its economic future the same way Wayne Gretzky thought through his next move on the ice: “You follow where the puck is going,” he said, ”not where it is right now.” Where LA County is going economically is the big question facing its industrial, enterprise, and governmental organizations. That’s just one of the concerns addressed at the November 8th Future of Work Conference (FOW) hosted by Pasadena City College’s (PCC) Economic and Workforce Development division (EWD). Dr. Jez gave the opening keynote presentation and shared with attendees how her organization, California Competes, looks at the educational barriers facing so many of the State’s higher ed students.

Building stronger partnerships between educators and employers is the ultimate goal of California Competes. The organization’s fundamental premise is that a well-educated population builds a more robust economy, so all stakeholders in economic success initiatives are also stakeholders in successful higher education systems. Dr. Jez led made a compelling argument about how higher education and employment are the foundational pillars of today’s and tomorrow’s economy.

 

California Led the Nation in its Valuation of Advanced Education …

Research offered by Dr. Jez revealed that Californians place a high value on advanced and supplemental education. A 2016-2019 survey indicated that 57% of Californians at that time recognized that additional education contributed significant benefits to an improved economic status. That percentage compares to other states in the country, such as Wyoming and the Dakotas, where only 33% of those surveyed asserted such a high regard for advanced education opportunities. Additionally, the survey indicated that those populations that would most benefit from additional education resources were Californians of color and those without a high school diploma.

The motivations to pursue more education varies, but when asked:

more than half of survey respondents (57%) said they would pursue additional education if it came with a guaranteed employment outcome;

an almost equal percentage (56%) said they would attend if tuition were free, and

another significant percentage (54%) revealed they would attend if the college opportunity fit well with their schedule and other life obligations.

Equally interesting was the number of Californians that believed vocational programs, as compared to graduate degrees, were very much worth their cost. When comparing the five outcome options offered by advanced education beyond high school, attaining a graduate degree was deemed well worth the price by 59% of respondents, while 62% of respondents said the same about a vocational certification program.

Graduate degrees received the highest rank for ‘career value’ (66% listed these as offering the best long-term educational outcomes), which defines the correlation between added academic credentials and a higher standard of living over the course of one’s life. Vocational achievements were second, surprisingly, with 54% agreeing that they offered significant long-term benefits; bachelor’s degrees were third (7% behind vocational credentials, at 47%), and associate degrees were fourth on this list (at 42%).

This aggregated data indicates that Californians understand that they don’t need to achieve a four-year or more university degree to achieve a well-paying and satisfying life-long career.

 

… Until it Didn’t

Despite the value and benefits of pursuing additional education beyond high school, today’s statistics reveal a decided decline in enrollments in colleges across the state, especially at community colleges. The downturn continued even after COVID vaccines reduced the threat of the virus and allowed campuses to open again. In the fall of 2021, more students left their college campus than had done so in the fall of 2020. Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Community College registration numbers have fallen, down 7% from 2020 and 20% overall when compared to enrollment numbers of the fall term for 2019. A March 2022 memo from the CCCCO revealed that the cumulative loss of students over the course of the coronavirus concern includes more than 300,000 learners. This disturbing data suggests additional research is necessary to determine what will bring students back to school, especially since they know or could know of the benefits they would gain if they elected to pursue that course again.

 

California Competes Adds Data to the Conversation …

The California Competes research organization evaluated these statistics. It determined that several factors are keeping potential workers away from the employers who need them, now or in the future.

Cultural Barriers

Dr. Jez asserts that cultural challenges are some of the most significant barriers for many California residents who would benefit from but are not accessing higher education resources. Those populations having the most difficult time entering and persisting through any level of college program are the stereotypical populations: People of Color (POC), first-generation would-be college attendees, and those from society’s lower social and economic strata. In too many instances, according to jazz, existing policies and practices become insurmountable hurdles to learners from these communities.

Structural Barriers

Not only do they not have the social support systems that could sustain them through their academic term, but they also have challenges finding their way through the systems that currently exist in today’s college landscape. Each of these state-owned yet independently run organizations utilizes its own unique form of governance, rules, and protocols. Gaining access to one doesn’t equate to having access to all. Moreover, the processes required to qualify, enter, and pay for these resources are often beyond the financial capacity of many would-be college students.

‘Values’ Barriers

At least at the present time, there also appears to be a disconnect between the colleges and the employers that would hire their graduates. While the colleges prioritize graduation rates, persistence percentages, and incoming enrollment numbers, their employer and business-based community partners value high levels of skill, in-depth comprehension of industrial practices, and strong work skills that translate into profitable businesses. California competes suggests that schools should evaluate their programs in light of what their economic partners require. Both sides of these partnerships need to completely comprehend what needs to be taught and why that matters if they are each to achieve success in their shared economic development environment.

 

… And Suggests Solutions

Dr. Jez offered some of the conclusions she formed based on an analysis of the aggregate data. She has determined that one “best practice” would be to create multiple roles around college campuses that connect directly with local business entities. Faculty members, dedicated staff people, administrative agents, and others can engage directly with the business community throughout the school year to share information and seed the other’s perspective of industry and education evolutions. She also encourages all workforce development sector participants to develop and sustain shared spaces to gather the various elements and professions in one room for collaboration on solutions to these complex economic problems.

Jez notes that California Competes is already working on developing this second solution, as she introduced its regional pilot program, “LA Career Ready.” Launched in May of 2022, the pilot will develop processes to streamline and analyze workforce development programs to generate the capacity for cross-sector collaboration. Four Los Angeles County community colleges( Compton, El Camino, Los Angeles SW comma, and West Los Angeles) have committed to the program’s initial two-year term.

 

The contributions of California Competes and Dr. Su Jin Jez are significant for all stakeholders in LA County’s workforce development environment. Pasadena City College, its Economic and Workforce Development division, and conference attendees greatly appreciated her presentation.

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