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Raise your hand if you believe the way 2020 has gone is payback for all those lame “20/20 vision” jokes we made last year. After all, no one had the foresight to predict the way our world would change back in March.
Months later, we’re still struggling with new cases of COVID-19, quarantines, masks, contact tracing, and more. It’s hard to think of any aspect of life that hasn’t been impacted dramatically by this global pandemic.
Many people share a common wish: we just want things to go back to normal. Unfortunately, it’s becoming clearer by the day that normal as we once knew it may be gone forever. The best we may be able to hope for is a so-called “new normal.”
What will this “new normal” look like? No one knows for sure. The very ways in which we learn and work may look significantly different from here on out. As we look to the future, experts believe that two things — community colleges and the skills training they provide — are essential to a successful economic recovery in a post-COVID-19 world.
Looking back to early March 2020, it seems strange to think that many people held out hope that the NCAA basketball tournament could still go on. Little did we realize a different type of madness was about to ensue. In a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic became “the most devastating economic crisis since the Great Depression,” according to a recent report by the National Skills Coalition (“NSC Report”).
Schools closed their doors and moved lessons online. Businesses not deemed “essential” were shuttered. Millions of people began to work from home for the first time in their lives. Travel ground to a halt. The once-booming economy took a nosedive.
These massive changes were felt like shockwaves. No one knew where or when the ripple effects would stop. According to the NSC Report, “[d]uring the first four months of the pandemic, nearly 50 million Americans – almost 30 percent of the U.S. workforce – filed for unemployment.”
Sadly, the effects of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 fell more heavily on some shoulders than others. As the NSC Report notes:
“Unfortunately, these immense pains have not been borne equally. More than 40 percent of that job loss has been concentrated among workers earning less than $40,000 a year. Workers with a high school degree or less have been displaced at nearly three times the rate as those with a bachelor’s degree.”
Over the summer, businesses began to reopen and operate with new precautions as pandemic-related restrictions were eased and, in some areas, removed entirely. Yet, life remained far from normal and no one knows what the fall and winter will hold as cold and flu season approaches.
With restrictions eased and the help of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act stimulus bill, the economy did see some improvement, but experts fear the impacts of the pandemic will be felt for a long time to come.
According to a recent article by David Deming, a professor and the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, “[w]hile the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen from its April peak, an increasing share of job losses are permanent rather than temporary. In August, 3.4 million workers lost their jobs for good, compared with only 2 million in April.”
An article by Annelies Goger for The Brookings Institution echoes this grim outlook:
“As the country begins the uncertain process of reopening the economy after COVID-19 lockdowns, economists predict that only 58% of workers are likely to return to their previous job. If that is indeed the case for the 49+ million Americans who have filed an initial claim for unemployment insurance since mid-March, it will leave more than 20 million people searching for a new job.”
Workers Need Skills
Not only might more than 20 million people need a new job, but they will want a quality job with a sustainable living wage. To find those jobs, though, many of those people will need to develop new skills.
According to a recent article by John C. Austin and Brad Hershbein for The Brookings Institution:
“For many of these workers, their old jobs won’t be coming back, even as the economy continues to reopen. Industries likely to expand in response to the pandemic — health care, medical device and supply manufacturing, and telecommunications equipment and software to support remote work and learning — require particular skill sets and greater education and training than many laid-off, lower-skilled workers currently possess. Additionally, evidence suggests that recessions cause many employers to permanently raise skill requirements as they retool their operations, making remaining jobs further out of reach for job seekers.”
So how are unemployed workers supposed to obtain the skills they need to find new jobs? When you’re struggling to make ends meet, embarking on a four-year journey to a college degree simply isn’t an option for the vast majority of people.
Instead, low-cost, short-term skills training programs that lead to attainable jobs should be our focus. For example, a recent report by Jobs for the Future notes:
“Demand for short-term training is skyrocketing in the COVID era. In a survey, a majority of adults who were considering enrolling in an education or training program said they would prefer an industry certification or a skill-building course, rather than a lengthier degree program.”
The NSC Report notes similar findings in its surveys:
“82 percent of voters support immediate increased public investment in skills training to help people laid off in industries hit hard by Coronavirus and 81 percent support continuing to increase investment in skills training long term. In addition, 75 percent of voters want to see more nimble, short-term higher education options so that people can quickly retrain.”
The World Economic Forum also sees skill development as the key to the future workforce. In a recent article by Ravi Kumar S. and Steve George, the authors conclude:
“Clearly, the future of work will not be about college degrees; it will be about job skills. Now is our opportunity to steer those without college degrees toward successful careers and increase diversity amongst our workforce…if we shift our focus from degrees to skills, we’ll enable a bigger workforce that represents the diversity of our populations, and will help close the all too familiar opportunity and employment gaps. This will mean transitioning to always-on skills-based education and employment infrastructure that embraces not just credentials and certification but fitness-for-job and employment as outcomes.”
How do we transition to a focus on job skills rather than college degrees? Such a transition would represent a sea change in the United States, where a push for more college degrees has been chipping away at the skilled trades for several decades now.
Recent U.S. legislative history doesn’t provide a great deal of hope. According to the NSC report, the U.S. “has a poor track record when it comes to equitable economic recovery policy…The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) spent much more on college-bound students and long-term unemployed workers with college degrees than it did on re-training workers without a BA for a new career coming out of the Great Recession.”
This is an ongoing trend that has left the most vulnerable workers with fewer options. As the NSC Report notes, “[f]or workers with a high school degree or less, policymakers have been eager to invest in them if they want to go to college. But there has been significantly less help for people who want to learn a skill or a trade, effectively invalidating the aspirations of millions of people seeking skilled careers and deepening economic disparity for those who cannot afford skills training.”
The NSC Report points out that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t spurred a change in this regard yet:
“In their initial response to this recession, policymakers have made the same mistakes. After months of debate and several trillion dollars of federal expenditures, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Washington championed any major investments in worker skills to make sure those most impacted by the COVID-19 Recession can train for jobs created with federal stimulus, can develop new careers in other sectors as their industries permanently downsize, or can gain the new skills required to participate in our now rapidly accelerated digital economy.”
A New Approach
Now is the time to urge policymakers to take a new approach to avoid the mistakes of the past. No one wants to see history repeat itself, especially when economic recovery from the COVID-19 Recession has put so much on the line.
Fortunately, there are multiple voices calling for a new skills-based focus, and they’ve started setting forth viable strategies to begin to deal with the current crisis. For example, the National Skills Coalition has developed its own “Eight-Part Skills-Focused Policy Agenda.”
The NSC Report details this agenda. Here is a sample of two specific areas the NSC has targeted in its recommendations:
- “6: DIGITAL ACCESS AND LEARNING FOR ALL WORKING PEOPLE AT HOME AND ON THE JOB. We must expand digital learning – both at home, as well as to workers on the job where training resources are not immediately available – while also ensuring that it is high quality, equitable, and inclusive.”
- “7: HIGH QUALITY, JOB-READY EDUCATION FOR THOSE WHO NEED TO RE-ENTER THE LABOR MARKET, INCLUDING MAKING COLLEGE WORK FOR WORKING PEOPLE. Increase system capacity and expand access to high quality, industry driven education and training that prepares workers for good jobs.”
In their article for The Brookings Institution, authors Austin and Hershbein argue that a comprehensive, skills-based approach for the nation as a whole is needed:
“We don’t know exactly what the post-pandemic economy will look like, or the extent to which it will reshape communities throughout the country. But it is almost certain that the needs for workforce adaptation will be greater than what small-scale, local programs can deliver, no matter how well-designed they are. National efforts — think of a G.I. Bill for adults to learn new skills through shorter-term, high-return programs — deserve serious consideration, especially if combined with customized career guidance based on employer needs.”
In his article in The New York Times, Deming stresses how critical such an approach is for those impacted by the current pandemic:
“[J]ob search assistance and training provide an important safety net for displaced workers, yet the United States spends a paltry 0.1 percent of gross domestic product on so-called active labor market policies, less than one-fifth the average of other developed nations. This is unfortunate, because a recent review of more than 200 studies finds that job training has large, long-term effects on employment, especially during recessions.”
Deming goes on to identify what he sees as the solution:
“The lesson is clear. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the United States outsourced job training to for-profit colleges, and many students are still suffering the consequences. Community colleges need to be at the center of talent development for millions of American workers.”
Community Colleges are Essential
Deming argues that “community colleges should be the main place to train America’s workers, because they are mission-oriented and well trusted.” He believes that “[w]ith proper funding and innovation, two-year public colleges can handle job training for millions of people.”
Others share Deming’s confidence in America’s community colleges. According to an article by Debra Bragg, “[w]ith about 1,000 campuses nationwide, community colleges are a resource and stabilizing force in the everyday life of millions of Americans.”
Likewise, Jobs for the Future notes in its recent report:
“Because they emphasize affordability, flexible education delivery, and connections to regional economies, community colleges are well positioned to help Americans access postsecondary education and prepare them for work. That is why, especially in times of economic downturn, government, communities, and families ought to look to community colleges as engines of recovery.”
However, community colleges cannot fulfill their missions and spur the economy to a full recovery without a substantial investment at the national level. Deming notes that “underfunding and overcrowding mean that the most valuable community college programs are often unavailable to many students.”
The Jobs for the Future report likewise highlights the “need to enact the right policies and make the right investments to harness and unleash the full potential of community colleges.” At least one entity has set forth a bold recommendation to support the nation’s community colleges.
In her article, Bragg notes:
“Just before social distancing restrictions shut down business as usual, CESNA [the Center for Education and Skills for New America] published Blueprint for a Federal Investment in Community Colleges, which strongly recommends a new $2 billion investment [in community colleges]…Investment in accelerated programs, online instruction coupled to holistic student supports, career pathway-embedded credentials, and work-based learning for credit that equips students to learn while working can help position community college graduates to meet local workforce needs.”
Now is the Time to Act
As the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to suppress the nation’s economic recovery, it’s clear that now is the time to act. The NSC Report urges policymakers “to start investing in our future today, in a way that ensures that every worker and every small business can be part of our nation’s economic recovery.”
Indeed, the NSC Report warns that “[s]tate and federal officials cannot wait until the worst of the crisis is past before they start to build the post-pandemic economy our country needs.” Fortunately, there are some states that are proactively using CARES Act stimulus funds to support their community colleges.
Indiana is an example of a state investing in its community colleges in an attempt to jump start economic recovery by funding job-training programs at the local level. Using federal funding through the CARES Act, the state has expanded its Next Level Jobs program as part of the Rapid Recovery for a Better Future initiative.
According to the state’s Next Level Jobs website, “[t]he Workforce Ready Grant pays for all tuition and regularly assessed fees for qualifying high-value certificates at any eligible training provider.” Training providers include a variety of Indiana’s community colleges, including Ivy Tech Community College, Vincennes University, and Indiana Tech.
Qualifying training programs offer job training in high-growth fields, such as advanced manufacturing, building and construction, health and life sciences, IT and business services, and transportation and logistics. Learners can earn a wide variety of industry-standard certifications in many different types of fields, including:
- The Manufacturing Skill Standards Council’s (MSSC) CPT (Certified Production Technician) and CLT (Certified Logistics Technician) certifications; and
- The Smart Automation Certification Alliance’s (SACA) Silver-Level certifications in automation technology operations.
According to an article on WFYI.org, Indiana’s largest community college, Ivy Tech Community College, “is making online job training modules free for 10,000 Hoosiers. It’s aimed at helping workers who have been furloughed or laid off permanently get skills before heading back into the workforce.” In addition to state funding, Ivy Tech’s efforts have been supported by local business partners, such as Amatrol, that have donated access to online training.
Another example of proactive investment in community colleges comes from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. According to a recent article:
“The county has awarded a $420,000 Coronavirus Relief Fund grant to the community college. The funding will fund programs that train county residents who find themselves unemployed due to the global pandemic. The money will go toward the Bucks County Community College [BCCC] Center for Workforce Development. The funding will provide training at no cost to residents. It will offer four ‘Speed to Skill’ programs in [areas such as] metalwork training [and] electro-mechanical industrial maintenance training.”
Bucks County Commissioner Bob Harvie noted:
“Even before the pandemic, our economy was facing a shortage of skilled workers. This grant will allow BCCC to help those who want to help themselves and their families by expanding their skills. This program is a critical step to our recovery. The money the county granted was part of its share of funds through the federal [CARES] Act.”
Hopefully more states will follow these examples set by states like Indiana and Pennsylvania. Ideally, a new federal stimulus bill would include funding for a nationwide focus on critical skills training through local community colleges.
About Duane Bolin
Duane Bolin is a former curriculum developer and education specialist. He is currently a Marketing Content Developer for Amatrol, Inc. Learn more about Amatrol and its technical training solutions, including eLearning, here and connect with Duane on Amatrol’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube pages.