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Focusing WCC on COVID-19 recovery

With vaccine distribution well under way, it is tempting to think about returning to life as it was in 2019. The FDA gave the Johnson & Johnson vaccine emergency approval. The company has already shipped millions of doses. Michigan will begin offering vaccines to some individuals 50-and-older next week. They’ll open the process up to all residents 50-and -up by the end of the month. President Biden promised this week that all US adults who wanted a vaccine could have one by May. COVID-19 recovery seems like it should be just around the corner.

Simultaneously, we are being bombarded by news about community college enrollments in sharp decline. The number of completed FAFSA applications has dropped significantly, especially among low-income students who stand to benefit most from federal financial aid. Analysts now predict that community colleges will need to wait longer to see a COVID-19 recovery. Based on FAFSA applications, community colleges will likely see another decline in enrollment in the Fall.

Unemployment has risen among Black workers, and more than 4 million women have exited the labor force in recent months. Black and female workers have been hard-hit by the pandemic. They comprise a higher portion of low-wage workers, and workers who must perform their jobs in person. In addition, women with school-age children have found it next to impossible to balance the needs of their children and the demands of work simultaneously.

In addition, almost all sectors of the economy are facing the impact of massive waves of retirements – some of which the pandemic accelerated. Retirements aren’t the only thing that COVID-19 is accelerating. Automation is advancing more rapidly than first predicted. According to the Southern Region Education Board (SREB), employers could automate 30% of work activities by 2025. That’s five years sooner than SREB had originally predicted.

Automation will frustrate COVID-19 recovery

Industries are using automation to reduce costs, increase production and replace trained workers. In the South alone, the SREB predicts that automation will claim 18 million existing manufacturing jobs. That will also be happening in manufacturing-heavy Michigan. Educationally speaking, more than half of Michigan’s adult workforce has only a high school diploma. The accelerated move toward automation will disproportionately affect them.

While the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed by the tens of thousands each day, COVID-19 recovery is not just around the corner. With so many people electing not to enroll in community colleges, there will be a massive worker shortage at just the time the economy is poised to recover.

If this all sounds dire, it will be. Communities need their community colleges to be firing on all cylinders if we will experience any kind of COVID-19 recovery.

Our communities – those in Washtenaw County – will be seriously hampered by the lousy spending decisions the WCC Board of Trustees has made in the past 15 years. Paying millions to build an unneeded fitness center is just siphoning off educational resources.

Instead of having money to retrain workers, get high school graduates into career and trade programs, and develop new curricula, WCC diverted General Fund dollars to pay the Fitness Center’s bills. Worse, this “self-supporting” speculative venture has lost nearly 5,000 subscribers during the pandemic, many of whom will never come back. The losses measure in the millions.

Instead of using the generous property tax collections of the past decade to repair and upgrade the facilities, the WCC Administration wasted millions of dollars to increase the size of the administration. Thanks to years of neglect, the cost to repair the buildings is now astronomical. It will require significant additional borrowing to finance the projects.

Master plan is not the basis for COVID-19 recovery

Last year, WCC debuted its new Master Plan. Instead of addressing the coming, urgent employment needs of the county and the region, the WCC Administration cooked up a plan to build a hotel and conference center instead.

We need a community college that has a plan to meet the education and training needs of Washtenaw County. Instead, we have a community college that wasted a quarter-million dollars developing a plan to close the main entrance to the campus.

Immediately, the Board needs to focus the WCC administration on getting high school graduates into career and trade training programs. WCC needs to have a re-entry solution for the women in Washtenaw County who left their jobs to oversee their children’s “Zoom school.” WCC needs to have a plan to make career training available to the thousands of workers who will be losing their jobs to automation in the next 5-10 years.

The WCC Board needs to stop daydreaming about hotels and get to work on getting people into the workforce. If that’s either too much work or beyond their collective capabilities, then it’s time for them to step down and let others take over.

Photo Credit: Bill Dickinson , via Flickr