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Decoupling employment and education

You wouldn’t get an argument by saying that a college degree creates a happier and more economically rewarding work life. But a growing number of 18-24 year olds are skipping college to move directly into the workforce. Permanent changes in the economy will force young people to choose between employment and education for the foreseeable future.

If you believe your favorite restaurant/grocery store/pharmacy is short-staffed ‘because no one wants to work anymore,” you have a surprise coming. A politically motivated trope making the rounds insists that young people are sitting at home collecting unemployment. (They’re not.) In fact, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds neither in school nor working decreased from 18 percent in 2010 to 13 percent in 2019.

It’s not so much that “no one wants to work” as it is that there is no one to work. Employers created nearly five times more jobs in the month of November than they filled. The situation is due, in part, to a sharp decrease in immigration. The number of people obtaining permanent resident status in the United States declined by nearly 13% between 2016 and 2019. Refugee arrivals also declined by nearly two-thirds during the same period.

That’s significant because the US hasn’t logged a replacement birth rate (2.1 births per woman of child-bearing age) since the early 1970’s. Instead, it has backfilled the birth rate gap through immigration. The likelihood that the US will ever again achieve a replacement birth rate of 2.1 is minimal. The US birth rate in 2020 was 1.6, the lowest rate recorded in US history.

When employment and education collide

Going forward, the choice between employment and education will only become harder. For community colleges, it means they’ll need to get much better at recruiting students. That could mean working more closely with K-12 school districts over a longer period of time. It could mean retiring the semester-based academic calendar in favor of accelerated programs that put trained people into the workforce faster.

Don’t mistake certificate programs for accelerated training. Accelerated training programs log the same amount of classroom hours, but students spend 40 hours per week on campus. That enables a student to complete degree requirements in less than 6 months. Schools that have instituted accelerated programs (like Valencia College in Orlando, FL) have seen an increase in enrollment.

It also means competing against local employers to entice students into classrooms instead of factories and shops. For older students, it may mean providing better advising and career planning tools. Finally, it may also mean developing strategies to work with special populations (like inmates, single mothers, high school dropouts, people collecting unemployment and older workers) in order to maximize the number of people active in the workforce.

That’s the level of work awaiting community college administrations for the foreseeable future. Maintaining enrollment is going to require sustained effort and creativity. Community colleges that can’t articulate the case for choosing education over employment will see their enrollment plummet. Declining enrollment is a signal that community college administrators aren’t doing enough to make their case. Building enrollment is possible, even in these circumstances. In the choice between employment and education, if community college administrators cannot make the benefits of education clear they should be held to account for the enrollment losses.

Photo Credit: Alachua County , via Flickr