Reducing Barriers Facilitates the Future of Work

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

November 15, 2022

Declining enrollment numbers weren’t the only concern discussed at the recent Future of Work Conference hosted by the Economic and Workforce Development (EWD) division at Pasadena City College (PCC). The event’s five panelists, each bringing a unique perspective to the conversation, also addressed ancillary issues that are impacting today’s higher education, industrial, and workforce development sectors. All were aware that these topics also present significant barriers to student success and also, therefore, economic success.




Data suggest that current policies and practices create adverse outcomes for a disproportionately large percentage of African and Latinx students. According to the Pell Institute, 62% of learners from high-income families graduate with a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 13% of learners from under-resourced communities. In many cases, lack of funding is the problem. However, students from these populations also struggle to find resources to sustain them through their education. They are more readily available to learners from more stable economic backgrounds. A lack of transportation, child care, and other family and social obligations frequently force these students to choose between an education and living their life. Panelists were asked to comment on how to reduce or remove these barriers.

Will Walls commented on the fact that out-of-state students face the additional barrier of higher tuition. Conventional college tuition strategies often provide in-state students with reduced rates compared to those of students coming from other locations, with no thought given to their suppressed economic situation. The practice inhibits some potential students from pursuing their education in California. Walls also suggested that many students in this economically depressed cohort group struggle to feel welcome on campus. He believes that a dedicated outreach to each student, offering the assistance they need to find the specific resources they want, would encourage many, if not most, to remain in or return to school.

Sandra Sanchez agreed with Walls. She asserted that students needed to know that they belonged on campus unconditionally, regardless of their social, economic, or ethnic status. She believes that the schools should shoulder the burden of facilitating access to resources so that when students declare they can’t find what they need, there is a school representative nearby to help them. Kelly Lobianco followed up by suggesting that colleges track student activities not only through the undergraduate process but also after graduation and into their careers. Additionally, Martin Hernandez believed that it is as important to understand the kinds of support each student needs as it is to understand what their ultimate educational goal might be. He noted that the definition of “student success” is as personal as each student’s identity. Schools should work to help their learners achieve their individual definitions of success.

Dr. Micah Young added that school personnel and students should actively engage in “value” conversations, asserting that the values offered by the institution may not match the values expected by the student. He sees two styles of “valuation” that can help both the institution and the learner clarify what they believe it is true:

The value of education as a standalone asset. Does the student benefit as much from the college experience as they do from the learning they’re achieving?

The value of a career. Is the student more interested and invested in attaining that future goal than they are in the means they pursue to achieve it?

Dr. Young suggests that learners attend higher education programs for different reasons; knowing what those are helps the learner and the college define their expectations of “educational success.”



Panelists were asked to comment on their experience of barriers within the workforce and economic development system as a whole. Happily, they chose to discuss new opportunities that have emerged because of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Martin Hernandez and Sandra Sanchez, the unique circumstances of the coronavirus compelled positive evolutions in their organizations that might have taken years or decades to appear, if at all.

Hernandez was proud to report that his program grew substantially over the course of 2020 and 2021. Instead of remaining at a limiting four-month term, which was its norm, his internship opportunities were extended out to nine months, and added remote and hybrid (on-site/remote) internship formats as standard options, as well (dependent on the needs of the business, of course). He has received very positive feedback from his student interns and is tracking data to determine whether the programs for whom he recruits are reaping a similar benefit.

Sanchez is also proud of how the community colleges pivoted so quickly and comprehensively to an entirely online format. Those transitions reduced the perceived barriers to a more digital educational landscape and, instead, helped both instructors and the instructed gain new skills and deeper insights about their shared subject matter. Consequently, the CCCCO updated outdated regulations to allow more flexibility to teachers and faculty about how they offer their lessons. The new rules make it much easier for individual teachers to introduce work-based learning opportunities into their curricula as a fundamental element of their program.


Shared Visions of Success

Finally but not least, Kim asked the panel to share their thought on what the LA region could do at this moment as a unified system to support this educational and economic evolution. Collectively, three insights were advanced:

Kelly Lobianco commented that schools should bear the burden of moving learners through initial engagement and into their career opportunity. Existing systems encountered by new students are too often unwieldy and confusing and put off those potential learners who become overwhelmed.

As voiced by Will Walls: write a collective success story. Each agency is contributing resources and energy to these initiatives. Gather those individual histories to tell the full tale of what Los Angeles County has been doing, the successes it’s already had, the lessons it’s learned, and the directions it plans to go.

Martin Hernandez emphasized gathering a complete picture. The entities appearing in today’s conference are just a few of the hundreds of organizations across the county that are also contributing effort to these initiatives. What can we learn from them, he asks. And how can we use their experience to inform and enhance our own endeavors?

The conference’s timeline of a scant three hours was not expected to facilitate an in-depth conversation on any individual issue. Instead, the panelists and keynote speakers provided unique observations and information to improve the understanding of conference attendees of the issues facing Los Angeles County in its quest for economic development.


The next edition of the Pulse will share the information and insights offered by our two exceptional keynote speakers, Dr. Su Jin Jez, the Executive Director of California Competes, and Stephen Cheung, President of the LA Economic Development Corporation and the World Trade Canter LA.


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