Evergreen Valley College. Photo courtesy of San-Jose Evergreen Community College District.
Evergreen Valley College. Photo courtesy of San-Jose Evergreen Community College District.

    Economic insecurity is a major burden for millions of Californians, including hundreds of thousands in our own community. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, more than one-third of state residents live in or near poverty.

    In fact, as a nation, when it comes to social mobility, the United States is stuck in first gear. In the 2020 Global Social Mobility Report from the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranked No. 27 out of 82 countries, behind such nations as Lithuania, Portugal and Estonia.

    Many of our citizens are being squeezed out of a steadily shrinking middle class. Yet at the same time, many employers are finding it difficult to identify workers with the training and skills necessary to fill in-demand jobs in an economy that is becoming increasingly complex and ever more reliant on a highly trained, highly skilled workforce.

    Estimates for our region indicate that 6.1% of Santa Clara County residents live in poverty. In a county of nearly 2 million people, that means roughly 120,000 residents are living below the poverty line. Due to the high cost of living in our region, the number of people struggling to make ends meet is far greater than that.

    Something must be done to reduce these numbers and expand California’s middle class—and the state’s 116 community colleges are uniquely positioned to play a major role in this effort.

    California’s community colleges are the state’s engine of social and economic mobility, and it is imperative that they remain at the forefront as we work to meet and overcome these challenges. One way community colleges are doing so is through the Strong Workforce Program, which is investing nearly $250 million annually to build and enhance career education programs that lift low-wage workers into living-wage jobs.

    The Strong Workforce Program places an emphasis on innovation and risk-taking, allowing colleges to be more responsive to labor market demands and student outcomes.

    With robust Strong Workforce Programs at both San Jose City College and Evergreen Valley College, our local community colleges are preparing thousands of students for high-wage, high-demand jobs each year.

    This work is being conducted with a focus on our students’ educational and career goals as well as the California community college system’s Vision for Success.

    Among the goals of the ambitious Vision for Success is a commitment to eliminate the achievement gap while increasing the number of students transferring to four-year universities and earning an associate degree, credential, certificate or specific skill set that prepares them for a career.

    If we are unable to make significant progress toward these goals, it is estimated that California will face a shortage of as many as 1.5 million skilled workers for jobs that require some college education, but not a bachelor’s degree. But closing this gap can only be done if employers and educators work together.

    This is precisely what is taking place in San Jose where, thanks to advisory boards made up of representatives from business and labor, our local community colleges offer a variety of apprenticeship and career education programs that are increasing earnings and boosting the careers of those who complete the programs.

    Quality, affordable career programs work. They move us toward a more equitable future by preparing students from all backgrounds and walks of life for careers in a range of industries including health care, manufacturing, automotive technology, computer technology, the construction trades and many more.

    Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce. In order to ensure that they have the skills and training needed to fulfill California’s workforce needs for the next generation, we need to prioritize student learning by offering the right programs and services. But program offerings and student support services alone are not enough. We must combine these with high expectations, an emphasis on data-informed decision making and a focus on accessibility and affordability for all students.

    Together, we can get in gear and bring our valley’s economic engine up to speed. Through more sustainable collaborations between higher education and our partners in business and industry, we will succeed in providing the education and training needed to ensure everyone who is willing to put in the effort has a pathway to an in-demand career and a livable wage—especially here in Silicon Valley.

    San José Spotlight columnist Dr. Byron D. Clift Breland is chancellor of San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, which operates San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, the Milpitas College Extension and the Community College Center for Economic Mobility. His columns appear every first Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at [email protected]

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