The workforce development fantasy

President Obama focused on the workforce development mission of community colleges in his State of the Union Speech, calling on community colleges to train two million skilled workers for unfilled jobs.

The next day, Education Secretary Arne Duncan flew to Florida to praise job training programs at Tallahassee Community College.

Workforce development is the flavor of the month, writes Community College Dean. But it’s not as easy as politicians think to turn out skilled workers.

The most predictable lower-level workforce needs are actually the skills we expect students to pick up in their general education courses: effective communication, the ability to see the big picture, enough quantitative skill to know when an answer doesn’t sound right.  Those skills are evergreens, and like evergreens, they take time to grow.

There are always a few local employers who need workers who can be trained quickly, the dean writes. But those jobs get filled by the first or second cohort of trainees.

Many would-be workers need literacy or English as a Second Language classes. Community colleges’ developmental track is geared towards getting students into a degree program.  Adult Basic Education is a better fit, but often is underfunded and can’t meet the demand.

The dean’s advice:

If you want to improve the prospects of the local workforce, start with adult basic education, add short-term training programs, and beef up the classic academic offerings at community colleges for transfer. . . . Otherwise, you’ll just keep cycling people through training programs every few years, every time the economic winds shift.

The second word in “community college” is “college,” the dean points out. Community colleges are in danger of being defined purely as job training centers.


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