How community colleges can prepare our region’s workers for high-demand fields

By Nathan Bemis, WRAG Summer Intern
and Katy Moore, Director of Member Services

Historically, community colleges have been viewed as the catch-all for students who couldn’t qualify for or afford a four-year college. That’s no longer true – especially, with the growing emphasis President Obama is placing on community colleges with his recent challenge to produce 5 million new graduates by 2020:

In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs – or keep those jobs on our shores – without the training offered by community colleges.

Last week, WRAG members met with leaders from the U.S. Department of Education and administrators from our region’s community colleges to explore the increasingly important role that community colleges are playing, and how collaboration among educators, government officials, grantmakers, and leaders in industry is key if we are to train a new generation of skilled workers.

Dr. Brenda Dann-Messier, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Adult and Vocational Education, offered some insight into the president’s proposed Community College to Career Initiative and suggested a few ways that grantmakers could support the movement, including:

  • By being honest brokers, grantmakers can promote collaboration among government, educators, industries, and philanthropy to create a more rewarding, supportive, and successful education system for everyone involved, especially students.
  • Grantmakers can amplify the impact of programs at the local level by matching federal funds, supporting programs that align with federal dollars, or funding wrap-around supports that enable student achievement.
  • By using their influence to build interest in and momentum for new and innovative programs in postsecondary education, grantmakers can create excitement for high-impact workforce training programs.
  • By requiring and funding high-quality evaluation, grantmakers can support the discovery of the best possible tools and methods of instruction for the creation of an informed and engaged student populace.

Following the Assistant Secretary’s comments, representatives from the region’s four community colleges discussed their schools’ programs as well as the opportunities and challenges they face in training our region’s workers for good-paying, high-demand jobs.

  • Dr. Charlene Dukes, President of Prince George’s Community College, and Dr. Calvin Woodland, CEO of the University of the District of Columbia Community College, both cited hospitality as an important area of focus given the predominance of the tourism industry in the District and the new and growing gaming industry in Prince George’s County. They both focused on the importance of career-ladder positions that offer professional and financial growth in our high-cost region and acknowledged the importance of working with trade associations and industry leaders both in curriculum development and classroom teaching.
  • Mr. George Payne, Vice President of Workforce Development and Continuing Education at Montgomery College, discussed his college’s focus on national certifications that are portable from state to state, such as their certificate for apartment maintenance technicians, made possible with funding from the Greater Washington Workforce Development Collaborative of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. He, too, commented on the importance of working with trade associations, specifically the local apartment owners association, in the development of curriculum and noted Montgomery College’s willingness to develop customized training programs to meet specific demands identified by local employers.
  • Finally, Dr. Mel Schiavelli, Executive Vice President of Northern Virginia Community College, highlighted his school’s focus on technology careers given the abundance of tech firms located in Northern Virginia and the school’s ongoing collaboration with the Northern Virginia Technology Council. He described the college’s commitment to connecting scientists to students as early as the 3rd grade and then continuing to promote meaningful connections between the scientific community and students at the 5th, 8th and 9th grade levels to continually reinforce the importance of science and increase students’ awareness of the depth and variety of tech-related careers.

Regardless of the bridge between education and business, all of the panelists alluded to a bit of a difficulty in the communications between industry and academia. Dr. Schiavelli deadpanned that this problem is partially rooted in the fact that “while industries change at the speed of the internet, movement in the academic world can be measured in geological time.” While improvements are always valued, everyone agreed that significant efforts are underway to identify industry needs earlier and to prepare students in our region for high demand, high paying jobs of the future.

According to a recent report commissioned by the United Way of the National Capital Area, over the next five years, the demand for workers in our region will be strongest in the areas of construction, health and education, and professional and business services sectors. As grantmakers consider how they are going to address these workforce opportunities, our region’s community colleges will be critical strategic partners, especially given the possibility of pending federal funding to increase their scope and effectiveness.