Ramona Schindelheim: Skills and Careers Will Shape the Future of Work
The numbers do tell a tale, but not all of it. Unemployment during the COVID pandemic is rampant, and too many people are afraid that they may never work again.
That fear is understandable says Ramona Schindelheim, Editor-in-Chief of WorkingNation and the co-host of Pasadena City College’s second annual (but first virtual) Future of Work Conference (which ran flawlessly over Zoom on Thursday, November 12; listen to it here). Prolonged unemployment depletes savings accounts and frays nerves, especially when there’s no apparent new job opportunity in sight.
However, Schindelheim believes the current unemployment situation can act as a reset for how people and companies can be thinking about their future careers and progress.
Many existing skills can transfer to new jobs so folks can carry some of what they love about their previous occupation into their next one.
For those with available resources, having the time to upskill to a new skill set can enhance their opportunity to find new work in a new or evolving industry.
There are many indicators that how we work will be different after the pandemic subsides, so it makes sense to be prepared to meet those new requirements.
Both groups must find a strategy to address their current challenge (no job or no market) that promises not just a path forward but also an opportunity to thrive. Both are likely to find the strategic support they need right around the corner – at their local community college.
Unemployment Is a Problem
As in other regions across the country, Californians watched as the pandemic shuttered numerous industries, at least for a time, and many of those are struggling to recover. Statistics comparing job numbers between September 2019 and September 2020 reveal that the concern continues to be significant:
The Leisure and Hospitality industry dropped over half a million jobs (579,000) due to the closing of restaurants, hotels, and theme parks closed and the cancellation of virtually all community events.
Transportation, trade, and utility jobs also evaporated by some 174,000, and
Education and health services lost another 138,000.
Millions are still out of work.
Underemployment is Also a Problem
Even before COVID-19 hit, however, America’s industries struggled to find the workers they needed to keep up with growing demand for services and products, especially in the manufacturing industry. In some cases, even when there were available job candidates, they didn’t have the skill set needed to perform the work.
Research released in July 2019 revealed:
About 83% of employer respondents were having difficulties finding appropriate job candidates for their openings.
Approximately 75% were struggling with skills shortages in the applicants they reviewed.
Of the 7.4 million jobs available in April of that year, employers could fill only 5.9 million, leaving unfilled an estimated 1.5 million employment opportunities.
One leading cause given for the shortages is the shrinking labor force itself. An aging population reduces the number of available workers, and those that are left apparently don’t have sufficient skill sets to qualify for all the work there is to do.
The data underscores Schindelheim’s point for both workers and employers: Don’t just look at the unemployment numbers; also look at the job openings that are (or will soon be) available and the skill sets they require. With that information, workers can identify the work they want to do in the future, and employers can be more specific about the skills they’re looking for in their next hiring cycle. Then they can both move forward on preparations for their next occupational steps whenever and wherever those might become available.
Unemployed or Understaffed? Start Locally
As a long-time journalist covering national, regional, and local news, Schindelheim is also adamant that both businesses and the unemployed take their next steps locally and believes their best place to start is their nearest community college. Additionally, before COVID-19, while unemployment numbers were low, there was also significant underemployment; many worked in lower-paying jobs because they lacked the skills needed to attain higher-paying occupations. These workers, too, would benefit from services offered by their local community college.
Several years ago, California noted this disparity and began investing in its community colleges to provide the training these underemployed workers need to qualify for a better job. Those investments are evident today, as many of the state’s community colleges now offer high-quality middle-skill courses and programs. These programs are now feeding the demand for middle-skilled workers that are in such high demand across all industries.
After COVID-19, the combination of high unemployment and a labor shortage is motivating the education system even harder to produce not just workers but also skilled workers. California state policy has positioned its community colleges to address the challenges facing both its unemployed and underemployed workers, as well as its understaffed business community.
Think ‘Skills,’ Not ‘Studies’
Too many people still believe that the only college experience that brings actual value is the four-year kind. Not true, according to Schindelheim. The U.S. census backs her up: only 36% of the U.S. population over 25 years has a four-year degree or higher, which means up to 64% are doing as well or better with less than that level of academic accomplishment. Some can craft significant success with no higher education credentials at all. Most can climb their personal career ladders by combining the theoretical foundations with skills training and work-based learning (WBL) provided by their local community college.
Think ‘Pivot,’ Not ‘Parked’
Another draw to the community college for out-of-workers is the opportunity to build on existing skillsets to adapt to new occupational demands. It may be that some jobs will never come back, but it’s also likely that something similar will take their place.
For example, many occupations have already been transformed by technological developments, making them more challenging to perform, even for those with long-time experience. In these situations, one appropriate response would be to embrace the technology and learn the skills needed to master it. In many cases, robots are replacing workers, but those robots also generate the demand for maintenance, repairs, installations, reprogramming, etc. Robots need people to keep them working. Planning to adapt to changes within a particular industry means workers can retain their foundational knowledge and build on it with new skills and abilities.
Ergo, Schindelheim suggests considering not’ job descriptions’ but ‘skill sets’ when determining next steps in one’s occupational journey. Regardless of the tasks accomplished, many skillsets transfer well from job to job. Many workers – as many as 71 million – already have the ability to perform higher-waged functions even if they – and their employers – don’t realize that fact. The local community college can help them upskill what they already know to find new opportunities in their previous industry.
Many business leaders have never considered their local community college as anything other than a possible hiring portal. And most don’t know about their evolution into the skills training, workforce-development agency they have become. Schindelheim is hopeful that events such as PCC’s Future of Work conference will help get the word out that training and retraining programs are available to businesses locally.
Think ‘Partner,’ Not ‘Placement’
Even though no one company can (or should) excel at everything, most can thrive when they optimize the values provided by their partnerships. Out-sourced resources like CPA’s, HR services, tech services, etc., offer vital corporate supports that enhance organizational core competencies and leave leadership free to pursue more significant corporate goals. In Schindelheim’s estimation, community colleges can become a training partner and provide ongoing training and upskilling activities, so individual businesses aren’t burdened with those tasks in addition to their core functions.
Further, the community college partnership provides more than one variety of service and benefit options, and most can tailor their training protocols to meet the needs of the company:
They offer existing programs and courses that reflect the depth and breadth of the skills needed in today’s industries. Most classes are adaptable to address both newly entered students’ needs and those seeking up-skilling and advanced training. From dental hygienists to welders, the community college course catalog reads like a ‘desired labor menu’ for today’s industrial sectors.
They extend classroom studies with work-based and experiential learning. Students learn not just how their labor contributes to the overarching production system but also precisely how to meet its exacting specifications.
They have the tools, labs, and other learning accouterments to provide a comprehensive training opportunity. Many companies would struggle to duplicate the full scope of training and education services that are available today on their local community college campus.
Not least important are the cost savings realized when a corporation out-sources its training requirements. Engaging a community college to do the training work means paying for teachers and materials, not labs, spaces, or other educational tools. The fact that the employer gains a well-trained, highly skilled workforce as a consequence adds even more value to the proposition.
Think ‘Collaborate,’ Not ‘Confine’
In addition to facilitating the actual learning environment, today’s community colleges don’t limit their ‘corporate cohort’ choices to just the existing course catalog. They also embrace collaboration with company leadership, eliciting specific industry inputs, and seeking advice and guidance to ensure the education program produces the exact talent and skills needed.
Many community colleges engage locally located advisory boards and committees to weigh in on curricula, resources, and credentialing. Each committee member adds a unique perspective that informs both the group and the work that it does.
The committee data informs college leadership about industrial and sector demands so they can make better-informed decisions about how to invest its financial and human capital assets.
The committees also weigh in on continuing education needs, the emerging trend of ‘life-long learning.’ Unlike many traditional jobs that remain static in their activities, today’s and tomorrow’s jobs will be dynamic and continuously fluid to adapt to evolving industry standards and norms. Community colleges need these inputs to ensure their programs do not grow stale over time.
These forms of collaborative course- and program-building exercises ensure that the college has the best information possible to develop its facility and optimize its investments to benefit its students and their future employers. In short: today’s community colleges do more than just train workers; they develop workforces designed to meet the specific needs of the employer.
Schindelheim has been reporting on business, finance, the economy, and more for years, so she’s seen many industrial evolutions come and go. She’s been watching the growth of ‘workforce development’ efforts and believes those are most beneficial when they offer local solutions to local problems. Yes, the pandemic is causing havoc in all sectors, but its ‘time out’ reality is also providing an opportunity to rethink how to best start up again. With the assistance and support of a local community college, Schindelheim believes every learner and every business can gain the assets they’ll need to prepare for whatever the post-COVID economy needs to get done.
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