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Occupational education demand will grow in the next decade

The Center on Education and the Workforce published a new report last week that says in the next decade, the US will see more than 17M new jobs created. Of those new jobs, nearly three-fourths will require some type of post-secondary education – most likely occupational education.

That ought to be good news for community colleges, but it may not be. If these projections are true, that will put enormous strain on community colleges at a time when they may not be able to produce the occupational education investments these new jobs will require.

It’s no secret that occupational education is expensive. Often, these programs require specialized tools, classrooms, and equipment. Community college executives are reluctant to spend the capital these programs need. They view occupational education through the lens of profitability. For some reason, certain administrators demand that these programs turn a profit. When they don’t, these short-sighted administrators cut occupational education.

Occupational education programs reside at publicly funded community colleges precisely because they are too expensive to run elsewhere. They are a “public good,” and while they may be expensive, they also return a high degree of value to the community that pays for them.

According to the CEW report, both the percentage of jobs that require a post-secondary education and the number of jobs that the economy will add are increasing. By 2031, workers with a high school diploma or less will fil 28% of the available jobs in the US economy. That’s a decrease from 2021, where 32% of the available jobs went to workers with limited educational attainment. It’s also a major shift from 1983, when more than two-thirds of jobs in the economy at that time were filled by workers with a high school diploma or less.

Occupational education demand has remained steady over time

The percentage of jobs that require an associate degree has remained fairly steady. In 1983, 13% of jobs required a worker with some college, a certificate, or an associate degree. In 2021, this percentage had dropped to 12%. By 2031, this percentage will again return to 13%. Because the economy has added jobs since 1983 and will continue to add positions, the number of workers who need an associate degree to perform their jobs will have increased from 13M to 22.2M by 2031.

Recently, in an effort to increase the number of workers with a post-secondary credential, states have begun paying for adult learners to return to college to earn a two-year degree. On one hand, this may slightly increase the enrollments at these institutions, and it may translate to growth in the educational attainment of certain members of the workforce.

On the other hand, part of the reason these programs do not produce the outcomes states hope for is because community colleges have invested so little in the development of programs that will support the jobs that employers have added and will continue to add to the economy. Without the required level of investment in occupational education, community colleges will not be prepared to deliver the workforce employers in the new economy need.

States should shift some of the resources they’ve earmarked for tuition programs to instructional development, occupational education, and academic infrastructure at community colleges. However, states should not take a “windfall” approach to this type of investment. Executives and elected officials at these institutions have already demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to make these investments on their own. It is also likely to be the only way states can maximize the results of their free college programs.

Photo Credit: Atlantic Cape Community College , via Flickr