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Community College: Advancing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Post-COVID Labor Market

Today’s workforce is in the midst of considerable change, where in the next couple of years, the demographic profile has been forecasted to comprise of more than five generations. In addition, the U.S. Census projects that the United States will become a majority minority population by 2044. This projected demographic shift will be accompanied by technological advances, making many lower-skilled occupations obsolete and subsequently accelerating the era of “new collar” jobs. These jobs represents the on-going shift from low-skilled manual labor to more technical work influenced by automation and other technology. Acknowledged in a 2020 National Governors Association report, workers will need to acquire advanced skills to compete for these 21st-century jobs, thus accelerating the urgency of systematically preparing America’s workforce for these occupations.

This urgency is especially relevant for younger Generation Z Americans, who were born after 1996 and among whom people of color constitute the largest demographic profile. Though communities of color are the fastest growing sectors of the population, history and research inform us that they also are most at risk in the pursuit of these careers. Thus, the need to prepare for the up-skilling, training, and credentialing of this population in a scalable and sustainable manner will require navigating complex socioeconomic, job readiness, and education accessibility issues. This opinion piece provides an example of why community colleges given their role and legacy are well positioned in partnering with the K–12, community-based organization, and business sectors in engaging and preparing America’s diverse workforce to meet the labor market skills of the future.

Dr. Evon W. WaltersDr. Evon W. Walters

Why Community Colleges?

Seated at the frontline of socioeconomic issues, community colleges employ an equity-based mission of open access as part of society’s aspiration of ensuring educational opportunities. This mission includes serving a disproportionate number of students who are low-income, nontraditional, first-generation, immigrants, and ethnic and racial minorities. These institutions have served more than 12 million students, or more than 40% of the U.S. undergraduate population, since their founding as a transformative agent in advancing the democratic ideals of building a stronger workforce. Their legacy of providing accessible, high-quality, and low-cost education and training has been accomplished via diverse pedagogical approaches and innovative instructional models that include a wide array of customized work-based learning, credit-based career and technical education (CTE), and non-credit program offerings, all of which accommodate underserved populations.

Two notable offerings from the community college sector are apprenticeship and CTE programs. Apprenticeship programs entails a partnership between employers, educators and students that creates on-the-job training and formal instruction, where the employer and educator collaborate on developing curricula and competency standards for training in a particular vocation or skill. Students who participate in these paid 2- to 5- year programs receive onsite employee training and mentorship in jobs such as manufacturing, construction, health care support, information technology, and other fields. By offering real-world experience and training, apprenticeship programs offer a cost-effective educational option for students to attain marketable skills. Moreover, paid apprenticeships can minimize or even eliminate potential financial barriers to education. Upon completion of their programs, apprentices receive industry credentials and are set up for a job with the employer union or association that sponsored the program. It should be noted that the number of apprenticeship programs within the United States has grown by over 200,000 since 2015. Much of this growth has received strong federal support from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education and the U.S. Department of Education Pathways to STEM Apprenticeship for High School Career and Technical Education students. Despite this growth, these opportunities have not yet realized its potential in attracting minorities and women. Given their structure, it is clear that apprenticeship programs hold great promise to engage people from underrepresented populations who are new to the workforce and link them with careers involving highly sought-after skills.

CTE programs offers an additional pathway to opportunities based on student interests and unique learning needs. As shared in a 2018 paper by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, federal, state, and local policy makers view CTE as a way to improve economic competitiveness and reduce educational inequity, thus making CTE one of the few policy ideas to attract bipartisan support. Most importantly, in terms of advanced credentialing, high school CTE programs create pathways to postsecondary programs of study or additional training after high school, including degrees, certificates, apprenticeships, and employment.

In its work with the Center for Urban Education, the Lumina Foundation (2017) asserted that no U.S. state can meet its workforce demands without addressing long-standing equity gaps. Following the 2008 Great Recession, community colleges played active roles in breaching these gaps and driving economic recovery. This effort can be repeated, perhaps even more successfully, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, developing a robust, agile, and responsive workforce ecosystem will require equity in the level of engagement, investment, and commitment by other key stakeholders. As the workforce modernizes and becomes more global, the sustained involvement of state and federal policymakers, the k–12 education system, and philanthropic, business, and industry sectors will be critical in enhancing scalability and ensuring capacity-building in programs and curricula. Building a robust and diverse talent pipeline will require a clear and cohesive long-term strategy with an equity-based collaborative and entrepreneurial spirit. This strategy also should embrace a more holistic approach to engagement, education, and empowerment of the country’s diverse talent pool to optimize economic opportunities for both employers and employees.

Workforce development efforts that incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion as core principles are not uncommon. However, in light of the future workforce needs, the challenge and opportunity reside in implementing initiatives that are sustainable and result in long-term change. Community colleges are the one constant in this shifting market. Given their credibility in their local communities and their direct connections with the business and industry sectors, community colleges can serve as an ideal conduit for further advancing this mission.

Dr. Evon W. Walters is the Northwest Region President of the Allegheny Campus and North Campus at Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania.


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