Community Colleges Viewing Workforce Development Through Regional Lens

In an ever-evolving job market, it is essential that students to have the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. As jobs change, so must colleges and universities in order to prepare graduates to go out into the world ready for work.

Overhauling an entire system of higher education to better meet workforce needs is no easy matter. Experts in the field shared their insights at a panel at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) conference on Tuesday. The two panelist represented the California Community College system and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, both of which are focusing on bridging a growing skills gap between employer needs and the qualifications of graduates.

In the last five years, California significantly has increased its investment in its community colleges. California’s community college system is the largest in the country, with 113 colleges and a proposed online-only college in the works, serving approximately 2.4 million students.

California is characterized by the disparate nature of its regional economies, with hubs of tech, entertainment, agriculture and so on in different parts of the state. In recognition of the state’s distinctive regional economies, the system has refocused its efforts on regional initiatives.

“In California, just as in Kentucky or any other state … the issue of aligning college programs with the labor market has to do with the regional economy, because until you understand what is driving the regional economy, you can’t set courses and pathways,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor for workforce and economic development at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office,

In addition, 60 percent of students in the system will attend more than one school as they pursue their education. “They’re really students of the region, not a single college,” Ton-Quinlivan said, which also incentivizes greater collaboration across institutions within a specific region.

Reflecting on the evolution of the California community college system, Ton-Quinlivan said that it did three things particularly well. First, the system developed an “ecosystem” of what Ton-Quinlivan referred to as “intrapreneurs,” or a network of first points-of-contact for local employers and regional institutions.

There are many community colleges located in or close by the economic hubs of the state. In San Diego, there are 11 colleges, for instance, and the Bay Area is home to 28. The community college system wants to link employers with the schools who are best prepared to educate and train workers in their industry areas, Ton-Quinlivan said. So the system created points of contact to help synthesize those sorts of workforce connections.

Since data is a critical part of the equation, Ton-Quinlivan said, the system developed new ways to understand and apply the data it was collecting. And finally, the system began experimenting with making innovations at scale: implementing change at multiple institutions that could then be replicated across the system, as opposed to local changes that might impact only one institution.

In Pennsylvania, understanding the regional context has also been important, Sue Mukherjee, assistant vice chancellor of educational intelligence at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education said on Tuesday. It is expected that by 2024, Pennsylvania will have 1 million job openings in areas such as healthcare, business and IT.

To help institutions better understand future workforce needs, the system produced the Gap Analysis Project last year, which looks at regional industry demands and the educational offerings at the system’s 14 universities.

“The value proposition at the end of the day really was helping our universities be better regional stewards,” Mukherjee said.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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