Enrollment has declined at community colleges across the nation for the past decade, but the pandemic has accelerated the slide. There is no one reason for the skid. Rather, a combination of factors is keeping people out of the classrooms at what might be the worst possible time. The result is a skill gap between what employers need and what they have.
If you have been paying attention, you have heard about the Great Resignation. While many news organizations characterize this as workers walking away from their jobs, that is not exactly the case. There is a labor shortage, and workers are using it as an opportunity to shift into better positions, new careers, or self-employment.
You can credit the pandemic for that. In the early days of the pandemic, most businesses closed, at least temporarily. Low skill workers disproportionately endured the shutdown because they could not do their work remotely. During that time, employees clearly identified the skill gap that prevented them from working from home. WFH became a dividing line for employees.
The demand for labor is increasing, in part, because Baby Boomers are retiring or otherwise exiting the workforce. (That exodus is not always voluntary.) At the same time, employers are warning that cannot find workers with the skill sets they need to expand. For some employers, the skill gap is an existential issue. If they cannot find workers with the right skills, their businesses will not survive.
Community colleges are not prepared to close skill gap
If skill acquisition is the problem, the community colleges ought to be the solution to the skill gap, right? At one time, the answer to that question might have been yes. Over the past two decades, community colleges have shifted their focus from occupational education to transfer programs. That has left occupational/vocational programs short on both students and funding. Occupational programs are often targets for “teaching out” because short-sighted community college administrators focus on the cost of an occupational program instead of its benefits.
Community colleges have left a void in occupational education opportunities. The void affects not only students but employers as well. You could trace a longer-tail impact even farther to county and state governments. Lower paid workers mean lower income tax revenues, more frequent layoffs, and higher demand for unemployment, Medicaid, and other social services.
As one would expect in a functioning marketplace, other providers have stepped in to fill the void. Those other providers include the high-dollar, low-impact, private-for-profit schools. Their excessive cost should be a turn-off to resource-poor students, but that is not the case. Students prefer the “start whenever, end whenever” approach to course delivery. They also appreciate the fact that they are (at least nominally) acquiring actual skills.
They are not the only provider of targeted education. Players like Google and Microsoft have created their own free curriculum for certain tech-based skills. Anyone can complete Google’s free certificate programs, which develop core technical skills. Granted, the Google certificates may be self-serving, but people can also find free curriculum at places like The Open University. Elite universities like Harvard and MIT also publish open curriculum resources.
Employers need an educated workforce
Community colleges will not easily reclaim the ground they have ceded on providing occupational education opportunities. Addressing the skill gap will require high-level coordination, significant public investment, and a long-term commitment to occupational education.
In recent surveys conducted by the Federal Reserve, employers cite a lack of skills among prospective employees as a serious challenge. The skills employers are looking for are not those employees could acquire during a light-weight, non-credit training course – which for some reason, community colleges relish these days. They are the skills employers will need to grow businesses through innovation. Employers do not need a trained workforce as much as they need an educated one.
Sadly, this seems to have been lost on community college administrators who prefer to address the needs of businesses while ignoring the needs of industries. In doing so, they rob the community of the decades-long investment we have made in our community colleges.
Photo Credit: ILO Asia-Pacific , via Flickr