Community Colleges, the Unsung Hero of Workforce Training and Job Development Strategies

By Frederick Steinmann

Back on Tuesday, October 5, 2010, President Obama kicked off a Presidential Summit focused on the impact that the nation’s community colleges could potentially have on ensuring national economic prosperity and growth.  According to an October 6, 2010 article in the Reno Gazette Journal, the President called America’s community colleges the, “…unsung heroes of America’s education system.”  President Obama also argued that community colleges, “…may not get the credit they deserve, they may not get the same resources of other schools, but they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.”

The important role community colleges play in training both today’s and tomorrow’s workforce often gets overlooked, or at least overshadowed, by the “big kids” of higher education.  Four-year state universities and gigantic private research universities often get the spotlight for their innovations and breakthroughs in research and the awarding of Bachelorette, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees – and for good reason.  Public and private universities, both nationwide and in California, have had tremendous success in developing, training, and producing a highly talented, skilled, and capable workforce.

As a two-time graduate (a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree) of the University of Nevada, Reno (a land grant university founded in 1874) and as a recent graduate (a Doctorate) of the University of Southern California (a private university founded in 1880), I can say that I have taken full advantage of the wonderful education and training provided by four-year universities and, after getting to know the many talented students whom I had the pleasure of going to school with, I can also say that society has benefited from these four-year universities in-terms of the quality workforce and future pool of leaders these institutions of higher learning have produced.

Yet there is something about higher education, in general, that disturbs me to some degree.  I hadn’t really put my finger on it until I finished reading a book recently published and produced by Dr. Frank Sherwood.  Published in 2008, Dr. Sherwood’s book, titled “Doctoral Education at the Washington Public Affairs Center:  28 Years (1973-2001) as an Output of the University of Southern California”, not only examines the rich practitioner history of USC and USC’s School of Public Administration (now known as the School of Policy, Planning, and Development), but also examines a fairly disturbing trend in higher education away from the responsibility of educating and producing a highly trained and highly skilled workforce toward an over-emphasis on academic and scholarly research.

Make no mistake about it, I firmly believe that academic and scholarly research is vital to maintaining our nation’s domestic and global competitiveness.  But maybe not all is lost.  Maybe, as state-run and private universities tend to gravitate more toward academic and scholarly research, community colleges both nationwide and especially in California, can take advantage of this trend by continuing to provide essential workforce development and job training services.

In my last blog I looked at different real estate and land reuse development strategies, specifically looking at the role redevelopment, as California’s primary institution of local urban revitalization and local urban economic development, has played in revitalizing physically and economically blighted neighborhoods in California while also helping to stimulate local levels of economic activity throughout the state.  In that blog I criticized local government’s over-reliance on property-based approaches to economic development.  Today, I’d like to focus on workforce development and job training economic development strategies, specifically looking at the role community colleges have played and will continue to play in helping develop a workforce sufficiently skilled and trained to help rebuild the nation’s stumbling economy.

What are Workforce Development and Job Training Economic Development Strategies?

According to the International Economic Development Council (IEDC), “Increased global competition and technological change in services and manufacturing have resulted in a new mix of specialized workforce skill requirements.”  The IEDC argues that, “Workforce development programs seek to bridge the gap between demand and supply through skills enhancement of existing workers and/or improve basic skills of entry-level workers.”  Yet, despite the importance of bridging the gap between workforce supply and demand by focusing on skill enhancement beyond a basic set of skills, most workforce development programs concentrate too much on remedial skill development.

To be competitive from a workforce supply perspective, our workforce development and job training programs need to better target the skill sets of mid to higher-skilled workers while also embracing a much broader approach to how we train today’s and tomorrow’s workforce.  The IEDC has found that, “Providing the skills needed to obtain a job and addressing the additional, often overlooked, issues such as childcare, language training, transportation, and housing, can increase the chance of the workforce of a community in seeking and retaining good jobs.”

Although workforce development and job training is complex, there are several types of programs and partners that can help facilitate the development and implementation of a workforce development and job training development strategy as part of a wider, more comprehensive economic development plan.  Edward Blakely and Ted Bradshaw, in their 2002 book titled “Planning Local Economic Development:  Theory and Practice”, identify the following partners and program sets that can be used in order to develop a series of workforce development and job training strategies:

  • Job Training Programs:  these programs typically consist of nonprofit contractors who are responsible for implementing state and federally-supported job training programs.  These nonprofit contractors also administer and provide funds to businesses that provide their own “in-house” curriculum and instructors.
  • Nonprofit Community Development Corporations (CDC’s): these CDC’s, who have historically been involved in a variety of local economic development programs such as housing, social service, and other programs, are increasingly becoming more involved in workforce development and job training for various disadvantaged groups.
  • High Schools: The high school still, for some odd-reason, remains probably the most untapped resource for growing the total potential of a community’s workforce. Teaching high school students through internships, business formation programs, and summer activities have been very successful in the few communities that have turned to their high schools for workforce development support.
  • Adult Education Programs: These programs serve a very important role especially when it comes to retraining a local and/or regional workforce. They include short-term but highly intensive workforce development curricula designed to help adults “retool” their existing skill set to meet current industry demand for trained workers.
  • Non-accredited Postsecondary Training Programs: Many training institutions are often associated with different industries and businesses that offer various “certificate programs” and are often run by business associations, unions, or equipment suppliers.
  • Accredited Colleges and Universities: It seems almost silly to mention the important role colleges and universities play in developing a highly skilled and highly trained workforce. But it is important to note that colleges and universities serve as the bedrock institution in most communities when it comes to training individuals for a successful career in a seemingly endless array of possible industries and fields.

When a community or region decides to develop a comprehensive economic development plan designed to create mid to high skill level jobs that pay mid to high level wages that also offer individuals meaningful opportunities for general upward mobility while enhancing an area’s overall quality of life, it is important to properly and thoroughly develop the plan’s workforce development and job training strategies.  Each of the six areas identified by Edward Blakely and Ted Bradshaw and outlined above should serve as the general outline for a community’s workforce development and job training strategies.  But it is also important to properly assess the area’s competitive economic advantages and tailor each of the six areas listed above to fit local assets and local needs.

The Unique Role Community Colleges Play in Economic Development

At the start of this blog I made the argument that community colleges, both nationwide and in California, have become the unsung heroes of workforce training and job development economic development strategies.  My goal was not to say that community colleges are more or less important than other programs, organizations, agencies, and educational institutions (including primary, middle, and high schools, public and private universities, research institutes, etc.) when it comes to workforce development and job training.  In fact, as the last section should make clear, workforce development and job training is often more complicated than most first realize.  A well thought-out economic development plan leverages the resources of many different programs, organizations, and agencies and takes particular advantage of the unique contributions every educational institution, primary schools through graduate schools, offer a community.

But for many people who have not had a direct relationship with a community college, community colleges far too often do not get the credit they deserve when it comes to developing a highly skilled and talented workforce.  And I fear that the students who attend community colleges are far too often overlooked when it comes to the important contributions they routinely make to our communities and the importance they have when it comes to rebuilding America’s domestic and international economic competitiveness.  As President Obama said back on October 5, community colleges “…may not get the credit they deserve, they may not get the same resources of other schools, but they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.”  The President pointed out that community colleges have and will continue to play an important role in helping staff mid to high skill level jobs that pay mid to high level wages that also offer individuals meaningful opportunities for advancement and contribute to an area’s overall quality of life.  In short, community colleges are essential in meeting the larger goals our community’s have when it comes to economic development.

Generically, community colleges provide a wide variety of programs designed to support local businesses and local workers.  Steven Koven and Thomas Lyons, in their 2010 book published by the International City-County Manager’s Association titled “Economic Development:  Strategies for State and Local Practice”, argue that community colleges tend to provide customized training programs for business, training for displaced workers, management and business curriculum programs, and “career readiness” certificates.  Many community colleges also provide assistance with general equivalency diplomas, English-as-a-Second-Language programs, and training or retraining for occupational areas and industries in a local area that are currently suffering from an under-supply of available workers.

Perhaps no other state relies as heavily on their community colleges as the state of California when it comes to workforce development and job training.  According to the California Community College’s Chancellor’s Office, “The California Community Colleges is the largest higher education system in the nation.  It is comprised of 72 districts, 112 colleges and enrolls more than 2.9 million students.”  In California, community colleges typically provide basic skills education, workforce training and courses designed to prepare students for a variety of career paths including eventual transfer to a four-year university, opportunities for personal enrichment, and lifelong learning.

The shear breadth of educational opportunities that California’s community colleges provide to prospective students is, quite simply, remarkable.  According to the California Community College’s Chancellor’s Office, prospective students can pursue a course of study in 43 different approved and projected programs provided by California’s community colleges – AND THAT’s JUST THE “A’s”!  There are literally hundreds of different approved programs offered by California’s community colleges.  In just the “A’s”, students can earn an associate’s degree or equivalent practitioner certification in accounting, advertising, African languages, agricultural technology and sciences, animal science, applied design, and aviation and airport management and services to name only just a few.

Giving Community Colleges Their Spot in the Spotlight

As I started out by saying, my goal in this blog was not to put one type of education over another in-terms of its contribution to economic development via workforce development and job training strategies.  I firmly believe that every level of formal education, primary schools through graduate schools and everything in between, has an important and unique role to play in helping stimulate long-term, stable, levels of economic activity.  But the week of Monday, October 4 was a good week for community colleges both nationwide and in California.  The national attention afforded to community colleges via the President’s summit on October 5 has helped spotlight the many important contributions community colleges routinely make to the positive growth of our local, regional, and state-wide communities.

Dr. Frederick Steinmann is currently the Managing Principal of his own firm, EDSolutions, LLC.  Dr. Steinmann began his professional economic development career with the Reno Redevelopment Agency in the City of Reno, Nevada.  Since then, Dr. Steinmann has worked for the Nevada Small Business Development Center, Bureau of Business and Economic Research (NSBDC-BBER), and as an intern for the Carson Economic Development Department in the City of Carson, California.  Frederick has also worked as an independent contractor for David Rosen Associates, one of the elite consulting firms in California specializing in redevelopment and affordable housing development.

Dr. Steinmann recently earned his Doctorate in Policy, Planning and Development from the University of Southern California.  Frederick completed and defended his dissertation, titled “The Twilight of the Local Redevelopment Era:  The Past, Present, and Future of Urban Revitalization and Urban Economic Development in Nevada and California”, in December, 2009.  Frederick is also a current and active member of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) and the American Planning Association (APA).  Frederick also holds a Bachelors of Science (2002) and Masters of Science (2004) in Economics from the University of Nevada, Reno.


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