According to a recent report from job posting aggregation site Indeed.com, roughly a third of all cybersecurity postings nationwide went without a single application, suggesting a potential gap between the number of jobs in the high-demand field, and the number of interested or qualified applicants seeking the positions.
That disparity, known as the “skills gap” in some industrial and higher education circles, is a growing subtext within conversations on workforce development and how intersections of college affordability, technological advancement, and political agendas mingle to influence who gets what credentials, and for what jobs.
Community colleges are often seen as the solution to the disconnect between learning and job preparation, gaining focus among lawmakers and industries for their ability to quickly provide comprehensive skill training in specialized fields, at an affordable price which allows students quick and financially rewarding entry into stable careers.
In the last five years, California has dramatically increased resources to its system of community colleges, and industries throughout the state are gaining new ground as a result of the system’s focus on its platform of "Doing What Matters for Jobs and the Economy ."
More than 113 institutions serving more than 2.1 million students make up the massive California Community Colleges System, which in the last two years has made gains in public funding during a growing culture of divestment from public support for two- and four-year colleges.
Over the last two years, its budget has increased nearly $1.2 billion, a trend that system officials attribute specifically to its emphasis on workforce development. A signature part of that effort has been the system’s "Strong Workforce Task Force,"’ a committee of faculty, career advisors and state commerce officials which in 2015 created a guidance report on how the state could improve postgraduate outcomes by standardizing metrics for how legislative workforce priorities are observed by colleges; how colleges embed those priorities into teaching and skill development; how students are measured for aptitude in skills training and how industries and corporations identify the schools doing the best job in developing skilled employees based upon their regional needs.
Employers throughout the state have been pleased with the results, and have become active partners in shaping career technical programs for regional colleges with program strength in specific areas. Last February, Northrup Grumman expanded a 15-year old curriculum development partnership with Antelope Valley College to help train workers for its aerospace manufacturing plant in Palmdale. With a goal of graduating 150 students in its first year, the program has its sights set on an annual goal of more than 400 credentialed, work-ready technicians from the partnership.
“As we continue to grow in the Antelope Valley, Northrop Grumman will continue to look for a greater numbers of graduates each year,” says Orville Dothage, a manufacturing manager at the plant. “The great thing about this program is that other manufacturing businesses and contractors are able to hire from this program, which enhances the job market in the Antelope Valley. The skills that the graduates learn qualify them for many other manufacturing positions in various local industries such as the electrical bus company, HVAC manufacturing, RV assembly and more.”
A culture of access
Officials say that part of the system’s strategy has been to regionalize the state’s workforce needs and to expose the benefits of credentialing to prospective students and program strength to employers. The result is a comprehensive set of digital interactive databases which allow visitors to pinpoint academic programs and workforce priorities based upon where they live and will eventually learn and work.
A look at the Northern Inland region shows that the area’s workforce priorities are centered around small business, healthcare and agriculture, with emerging growth in digital media and advanced manufacturing. CCC campuses in Butte, Feather River and Shasta are listed among several campuses with training programs in the targeted areas and lists the name and contact information for personnel who can aid businesses or students with questions about training or workforce access.
Manufacturing is a vital industrial sector for the region, and officials at California Steel Industries cite the CCC approach as a critical partner in keeping up with technological advancements in the field.
“About 25 percent of my workforce is just here to keep the machines operational,” says Rod Hoover, a human resources manager at CSI. “A machine shutdown of even a short period of time can cost a company thousands of dollars while repairs are being made. Having skilled workers who can address these issues quickly and safely is vital for manufacturers like CSI.”
“A key challenge for these employers is the question of who do you work with, because one local college may not have the interest or expertise to meet the need,” says Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor of workforce and economic development for the system. “We’re not one monolithic economy, and each region has different economic drivers. We’re really proud of the turnaround of the workforce mission. Over the last 3.5 years, we’ve been able to take workforce from an afterthought into a policy priority for the state. A major part of that has been to showcase innovation in workforce development at scale, and this has made it easier for employers to find and to work with us.”
That innovation has also translated into student access to career pathways, one of the key terms for the CCC workforce development initiative. The system’s Salary Surfer database provides prospective and current students with a median view of earning potential before pursuing a degree, and potential income for two and five years following completion.
“If you want social mobility, these programs can get you past living wage,” says Ton-Quinlivan. “And if you want economic competitiveness, the work we have to do now is not only to develop skill the first time, but to re-skill and to up-skill.”
Beyond technical training
The system also works to develop student skill for transfer into four-year programs and beyond. Ton-Quilivan says that the system is also researching and implementing curriculum development to address vital soft skills which lead to professional advancement and adaptability in the workplace.
In 2014, the system released its research report on how to best develop advanced skill sets for students within the community college pipeline, to encourage transfer and postgraduate success beyond the technical fields. That research is now part of articulation agreements with the University of California and California State University four-year systems encouraging access to STEM training and careers.
The system’s Maker Project is just one of the programs giving community college students perspective on careers in advanced professions and industries.
“Environment supplements learning and fosters creative economy skills,” says Ton-Quinlivan. “Tech skills may change, but critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication can transfer. So we’re looking for an environment in which the more students can see themselves in these professions, the better chance they have at developing these skills.”