Rodríguez: Community colleges in the post-COVID economy
Evergreen Valley College. Photo courtesy of San-Jose Evergreen Community College District.

As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly every aspect of our society and economy continues to face unprecedented changes to the way they operate. This includes higher education and the workforce, where the post-COVID economy is causing employers to reconsider how they recruit new talent at the scale needed to remain competitive.

As a nation, we are in the midst of a labor paradox: millions of people remain unemployed, yet employers struggle to fill many of their most in-demand positions. Even as employers look to fill open positions, skills gaps persist in many sectors. Community colleges, with their focus on workforce development, open access missions and dedication to re- and up-skilling workers, are uniquely positioned to benefit both employers and job seekers as we look to return to pre-pandemic employment levels.

I wrote previously about how the pandemic has caused institutions of higher education to reevaluate how they use technology and build curricula around the changing needs and desires of students. It is equally as important to ensure that our programs are built with the needs of employers and the demands of the 21st century workplace in mind as well.

Early indications show the post-COVID economy will place more emphasis on practical skills and specific certification and training rather than on degree attainment. In fact, a recent study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that, even prior to the pandemic, a growing number of people without a bachelor’s degree—23% of those with some college and no degree and 28% with an associate degree—were out-earning a majority of bachelor’s degree holders.

In some fields, such as skilled construction trades, a shortage of qualified workers and elevated wages are creating a great opportunity for students to learn a valuable skill that can result in immediate employment in living-wage jobs.

A survey conducted last fall by the Associated General Contractors of America found 89% of contractors reported having difficulty finding workers trained for the jobs they had available. Many of these positions require only an associate degree—or less, often just a short-term certificate.

As employers in a variety of fields seek highly qualified individuals to fill their most pressing needs, community colleges make valuable partners. Our colleges are hyper-responsive to local workforce needs, often working directly with major employers, who regularly serve on program advisory councils where they can provide direct feedback to colleges on how to closely align curriculum with labor market needs.

Additionally, community college students possess many of the soft skills employers most often look for in new employees. In addition to the technical skills and knowledge required to fill many positions, community college students are more likely than their university counterparts to have families and already be employed while completing their education. Balancing school, work and family requires the same time management, organization, critical thinking and leadership skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

As COVID-19 continues to impact our society and economy, the labor paradox is anticipated to persist for at least the near future. In the months and years ahead, community colleges and employers must seize this opportunity to work together and build new pathways that meet the needs of workers and those who seek to employ them.

San José Spotlight columnist Raúl Rodríguez is Interim 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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