Community colleges are the front line of workforce innovation

Across the United States States, community college enrollments have been drastically reduced by the pandemic’s impact on prospective students. In fact, community college enrollments in the spring of 2021 fell 9.5% from year to year. That’s a loss of around 476,000 students, contributing to the largest overall drop in higher education enrollment in more than a decade.

But while numbers like these can be intimidating, there are new signs of student interest in the community college experience – and the positive impact that two-year institutions have to offer as the country begins its journey. reprise.

An estimated 20.5 million adults between the ages of 25 and 64 plan to enroll in community or technical college in the next two years, according to a recent report of the Strada education network. And for good reason. With their narrow links to local and regional industries and their ability to meet training needs, community colleges will have an important role to play in meeting the workforce needs created by the pandemic.

What may surprise some, however, is how forward-thinking their approach to education and training can be. Granted, one of us works at a community college, but we think it’s no exaggeration to say he’s on the front lines of workforce innovation.

Community colleges today are looking to a range of emerging technologies to ensure they continue to meet the needs of a rapidly changing workforce. And Tthis is where we increasingly recognize – and support – such innovation. The League for Innovation at Community College, for example, cultivates and encourages impactful and cutting-edge practices around advancing the role of community colleges in public health, meeting national workforce needs and supporting pathway programs.

Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation, in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges, announced the Community College Innovation Challenge, directly involving community college students in the race for innovation. Teams of students work with a speaker or mentor to create solutions to real-world problems while participating in a virtual bootcamp designed to develop their skills in strategic communication and entrepreneurship.

Last year, the nonprofit Education Design Lab launched its Community College Growth Engine Fund, by selecting six community colleges to receive a start-up prize of $ 100,000, as well as support from the lab to launch what he calls “micro-routes”. The goal is to quickly connect low-wage, entry-level workers to in-demand jobs that pay at least the median wage, thus strengthening the role of two-year institutions in connecting students to rewarding careers.

Advances in technologies such as virtual and augmented reality are now finding their way onto community college campuses, helping students safely and conveniently gain critical hands-on experience. These immersive learning tools are proving particularly impactful at a time when the pandemic has forced so many students to learn and work remotely.

This was the case at Wallace State Community college in Alabama. Launched in 2020, following a meeting where the Alabama Trucking Association discussed their urgent workforce needs, Wallace State‘s Diesel by distance The program combines self-paced classes, online training, and workplace learning partnerships for students seeking a certificate or diploma in diesel technology. In April, the college added a virtual reality component to the popular curriculum, recreating the work environment of a diesel technician or mechanic. Thanks to TRANSFR’s immersive simulations, students can now learn, practice and master skills essential to the construction, manufacture, repair and maintenance of diesel-powered vehicles.

The program provides flexibility for working adults balancing the complex and varied demands of their time. Because the program allows learners to study from anywhere, students can participate in paid apprenticeships across the country.

These programs and initiatives are just the tip of the iceberg, and as the pandemic displaces workers and dramatically increases the demand for development and retraining efforts, community colleges have a lot to learn in the United States about the programs. , technologies and innovations that can lead to enhanced career outcomes for today’s learners.

Paradoxically, as bachelor’s degree institutions increasingly focus on employability, they have a lot to learn from the creative workforce strategies developed in community colleges. After all, universities, too, will have a big role to play in getting people back to work. This is an area in which they have fought for a long time, and they can learn a lot from how two-year institutions build stronger bridges between classrooms and careers.

Community colleges have always worked quietly to address the most pernicious challenges facing our country’s workforce. Every now and then, these challenges become so significant that the rest of the country takes notice. For decades, presidents of both parties praised community colleges. The Bush administration has touted access to community colleges by expanding Pell and increasing funding for dual enrollments. In the years following the financial crash, the Obama administration invested billions of dollars in community colleges to stimulate the then struggling economy. The Trump administration’s support for learning has been key to the growth of workplace learning. Now, the Biden administration is exploring similar steps in the wake of the economic impact of the pandemic.

As always, our innovative community colleges are ready to step into the limelight as history demands.

Vicki Karolewics is President of Wallace State Community College, Alabama, USA.

Bharani Rajakumar is CEO of TRANSFR.

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