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Employment, not employers, should be community college focus

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the new unemployment figures this week. Although the national unemployment rate ticked up slightly, it remained under 4% for the 25th consecutive month. Unemployment among most demographic groups remained unchanged. Only employment among women and teenagers dropped.

Unemployment among women is currently 3.5%. If you notice, that’s less than the national average, even with the job losses in January. As a reminder, the unemployment rate does not represent people who left the workforce voluntarily. It represents people who are looking for work and have not found a job. The unemployment rate among women may have risen not because women are being involuntarily separated from their jobs, but rather, an increasing number of women are looking for work.

In fact, the non-seasonally adjusted labor force participation rate among women ages 16+ increased year over year from 57.2% to 57.6%. The BLS registered same increase in the LFPR for women between January 2024 and February 2024. The LFPR for women ages 20+ jumped from 58.6% to 59.1% year over year for the month of February. Between January 2024 and February 2024, the LFPR increased four-tenths of one percent. Accounting for seasonal adjustments, the LFPR for women aged 20+ was five-tenths of one percent.

The point is that more women are either turning to work for the first time or returning to work. Return to work could signal an opportunity for community colleges in the next few years. As more women seek to return to the workforce, women will need training that allows them to qualify for high-wage, high-demand jobs.

WCC graduates should look forward to high-wage employment

Unfortunately, community colleges haven’t focused on creating these programs. Instead, they’ve created dozens of low-wage programs that will not allow graduates to earn a living wage. They’ve focused intently on the needs of employers who want minimally trained employees they can hire at near-poverty wages. And those same employers will need a steady stream of candidates because for some reason, they just can’t seem to keep employees on the payroll.

I recently spoke to a friend who owns a business. The business depends on employees who have a state licensure. He observed that the gig economy was making it difficult for him to keep employees on the payroll. After sharing what he paid his employees, I told him that I thought his pay scale was off by somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 per year, based on the living wage for the area. I also showed him – based on local salary data – that a driver for DoorDash or Shipt can make more money than he pays his state-licensed employees.

He assured me that he was paying his employees well, and offered them good benefits, paid vacations, 401 (k) matching, etc. I was not able to convince my friend that his employees cannot spend their benefits at the grocery store or use them to pay their rent. His perception remains that it is gig employment – and not his unwillingness to compete on price for employees – that is causing his high staff turnover.

Eliminate all low-wage academic programs

In the end, it does not matter what employers want if prospective employees cannot live on the wages the employer is offering. If community colleges want to survive, they will need to focus on the employment needs of the students – who pay for their educations – rather than the needs of the employers, who don’t. Focusing on students means offering a variety of programs that prepare them for high-wage, high demand employment.

I often wonder what would happen if a community college focused its instruction exclusively on training students for high-wage jobs.

I bet its classrooms would be bursting at the seams.

Photo Credit: Steve Saing , via Flickr