Closing the gap: Community colleges and workforce training

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Thursday, March 27, 2014


Changes in the economy and in higher education create a unique opportunity for strengthening the partnership between employers and community colleges. Employers need more workers to fill jobs in high demand fields such as manufacturing, health care, information technology and skilled trades. For example the Manufacturing Institute recently found that 5 percent of the manufacturing positions available nationwide are unfilled due to lack of qualified candidates. These are middle-skills jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree which pay a family wage. At the same time, Oregon’s aspirational vision of 40-40-20 — 40% of Oregonians with a bachelor’s degree, 40% with an associate degree, certificate or credential, 20% with only a high school diploma — brings renewed focus to that middle 40.

The comprehensive mission of community colleges gives us a role in each component of Oregon’s vision. Many of our students transfer to universities. In fact, 62% of Oregonians with a bachelors degree have attended a community college; colleges have robust partnerships with high schools to provide college classes in schools and seamless pathways to college; but it is our career, technical and workforce programs serving the middle 40 that present an opportunity to bring business and education together as never before.

Oregon’s seventeen community colleges typically reflect the communities they serve. Whether it’s a two-year degree, certificate or industry credential, community colleges prepare the majority of workers for local economies. However, changes in the structure of the labor market require us to continuously evolve. To ensure vibrant, relevant programs, we must constantly work with employers to assess the labor market, conduct robust program reviews, and innovate accordingly. We must validate and align curricula with sector employment need. We must improve opportunities for apprenticeships and internships in order to provide early workplace experiences. This ability to change to meet emerging needs is one of our strengths; much of this work is already going on at our community colleges but we will need to enhance existing partnerships with employers to take it to an unprecedented scale.

Aside from providing high quality technical training that meets real labor market needs, we should rethink how we organize the curriculum. In this era of focusing on student success and explicit learning outcomes, we must ensure that every course, every module and every credential connects and actually leads to something meaningful. Whether it is a laddered or layered curriculum, or stackable certificates that lead to a degree, we must be more intentional in overall program design so that students who stop in and stop out, depending on their situation, are on a pathway to success.

We must do more than assure high quality technical training. The data are clear—the more learning, the higher the earnings. We must be vigilant that we do not relegate our students to the lowest paying jobs most impacted by economic uncertainty. We need to educate our students not just for a job but to weather a turbulent economy and be ready for continuing shifts. It is critical that we look beyond narrow job training and integrate broader knowledge that helps students navigate the unscripted challenges that they will face in the market place.  

The comprehensive mission of community colleges requires us to prepare students for work, citizenship and life. Our two-year degree programs already include general education but if innovation is to be the hallmark of our economic recovery we must expose students to a curriculum that blends liberal and applied learning. Our students need the skills to cope with change and complexity if they are to forge a path through economic dislocation, or avoid it altogether. This is especially true for under-represented students. They should be encouraged to explore the richness of the arts and sciences in addition to participating in technical programs.

A recent study by Hart Research Associates found that employers want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes including: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication and applying knowledge in real-world settings. They found that employers agreed that having both field-specific knowledge and a broad range of skills is most important for graduates to achieve long term career success. These skills are often developed in the humanities, arts and sciences so it is essential that students, our current and future workers, are exposed to a broad range of learning opportunities that prepare them for the expectations and challenges that exist in the contemporary work environment.

There is much at stake. Education and workforce must be inextricably linked to create the economy that is essential to the well-being of Oregon. Community colleges are committed to focusing on the “middle 40” and we look forward to expanding our connection with employers and our partners to ensure that our curriculum prepares students for the responsibilities they face as citizens. That’s how we create healthy, empowered workers, businesses, families and communities.


Mary Spilde is president of Lane Community College. Spilde is one of three university administrators contributing quarterly perspectives on higher education for The two other contributors are Wim Wiewel, president of Portland State University, and Debra Ringold, Dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management at Willamette University.


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