Academic Literature

Future of Work, Workforce Development and Community Colleges – They must continue to remain responsive to the unfolding needs of their communities

Postsecondary workforce development is one of the major innovations of the modern community college. In a workforce approach, curriculum is driven by the needs of local industry, course delivery systems are sufficiently flexible to meet the diverse needs of students and industry, and students experience a mixture of work-based and classroom learning. These features combine to help students succeed at the postsecondary level and gain important training with less than a four-year degree.

This paper describes how community colleges came to be a major resource for the nation’s workforce development requirements and discusses the ways this role continues to evolve to meet the needs of students, employers, and local communities. The authors conclude by identifying major trends that will inform the future of workforce development in the American community college.

The Great Recession of 2008–2010 stimulated enrollments in community college workforce programs to new heights. Adults facing employment disruption sought out community college programs to gain skills for new jobs. Furthermore, the Obama administration considered community colleges an “undervalued asset in our country” (Obama, 2009), and many programs were developed to position community colleges as the major workforce training providers in the nation.

In the next few years, the community colleges workforce development mission will need to adapt to three major trends. First, changes in the economy are producing a dual challenge for the colleges. As more jobs require higher skills, the education levels demanded by employers will continue to rise. This means that more community college workforce programs must assume that students should be prepared to complete a degree at a four-year institution or complete a community college baccalaureate. Except for allied health areas, most career and technical programs lack consistent integration between the skills programs and their “foundation” or basic liberal arts and sciences areas. Most occupational programs do not require these courses for certificates, and even if students want to complete a degree, occupational faculty consider them add-ons to be undertaken after they complete their technical program sequence. This is a mistake because not only do survey data clearly indicate that most career and technical students wish to obtain a four-year degree, but the evolution of many of these occupations means they will soon require a four-year degree. Even in work-based learning programs such as apprenticeships, particularly the younger students view them as a first step toward a four-year degree. The work of Anthony Carnevale at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has been very important in emphasizing that degrees in specific college majors lead to income gains, and his data support the belief that both specific degree skills and general skills matter in the long run for anyone attending a community college workforce program.

Second, the heterogeneity of students continues to intensify, challenging the ability of community colleges to offer a variety of workforce programs. Workforce programs must meet the needs of high school students looking for a career, existing workers needing skills to increase their mobility, and dislocated workers looking for a career change. The ability to provide not simply the instruction but also the support services to make these students successful thus becomes an important goal of the programs. They will require a coherent and well-developed progression of classes that have knowledge validity (i.e., students need to learn relevant subject matter so they can fulfill their goals). For some liberal arts courses, this bar is met through well-prepared faculty who are familiar and current with their subject matter, and can continue to hone and develop their skills. However, career and technical courses have an additional burden to consider: How well do their programs meet the current, and most importantly future, needs of employers within their communities? Unlike other areas of the community college curriculum, career and technical education must be relevant to the employment and earnings of the students.

Given a decade or more of funding cuts to community colleges in most states, it is likely that many community college career and technical programs have not managed to keep up with some of the technical changes in the occupational areas they educate and train students to work in. This is a special concern in health, manufacturing, and business sectors that have integrated information technology. For example, few colleges have the capability to deal with the impact of big data issues at the workplace. In many colleges the information technology (IT) programs are maintained as discrete career and technical programs, while most companies integrate information technology skills within their various business units, resulting in significant IT demands in jobs related to medical record technologies or mechatronic technology. Truck driving programs remain traditionally focused, neglecting the potential impact of autonomous vehicles. Police academies rarely focus on cybersecurity training. Artificial intelligence raises another dimension for many of the programs—particularly in areas of accounting, marketing, and graphic and commercial design. The shift in many industries away from metals to composites, aluminum, and even additive manufacturing is not often reflected in construction and manufacturing curriculum.

Finally, the recent evolution in workforce education is producing a wide variety of activities and initiatives well beyond courses or programs. The workforce mission is not a separate stand-alone mission but integrated into all the rest of the college. This includes everything from serving as a place where entrepreneurial skills are taught, to providing technical expertise to local firms, to developing programs to serve the needs of high school students transitioning into career pathways, to promoting advanced technical training that results in a four-year degree. These activities do not fall under one administrative dean or a division of vocational education. They emerge out of many parts of the institution. The challenge in the future will be for college leaders to develop an organizational rationale which creates opportunities for all parts of the institution to participate.

Perhaps the best opportunity is for colleges to concentrate upon STEM initiatives, which will provide the basis for workforce programs to be linked to four-year college programs. Increasingly, job growth is not in areas that call only for some secondary education, but in sectors that require a four-year degree. Clearly, credit students understand this, as most national data indicate that students entering community colleges have four-year degrees as their goal. In many occupational areas where community colleges are strong—such as nursing programs—the employer desire for a four-year degree is already very apparent in most metropolitan labor markets. Moreover, the anticipated adoption of artificial intelligence by many sectors of the economy suggests that there will be even less employment for those without a four-year degree.

Thus, community colleges must continue to remain responsive to the unfolding needs of their communities for more employees who have four-year degrees and/or possess the appropriate basic skills to obtain these degrees. Clearly there will be many students, primarily adults, who need to acquire skills quickly so they can obtainmeaningful work. Community colleges need to continue to provide that opportunity, but they also need to indicate to students that they will need credentials of value if they are to be competitive in the labor market. This challenge will continue to inform the future of workforce development in the American community college.

Surveying the status of workforce development in community colleges, there are significant grounds for optimism. Polls of the U.S. population consistently rate community colleges positively as institutions that provide value. Moreover, a recent Gallup poll indicated that confidence in community colleges was highest among Americans who did not possess a four-year degree (Busteed & Newport, 2018). Indeed, the public is aware of these institutions, considers their workforce mission an important innovation, and supports the college and its workforce mission with enthusiasm. With that support, the future is very bright.


Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at The Evolving Mission of Workforce Development in the Community College

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