Report after report has documented the growing need for more skilled labor in the U.S. workforce. In the most recent quarterly survey of the National Association for Business Economics, 35 percent of respondents said their companies experienced shortages of skilled labor, up from about 25 percent in the three previous surveys.
A study by the Manufacturing Institute, “Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing 2015 and Beyond,” projects 3.5 million new jobs in that industry over the next decade, with 2 million positions going unfilled because of a lack of qualified workers.
Community colleges are well-positioned to train the next generation to fill the skills gap affecting business and industry in the regions in which they serve. By working with area employers to identify the jobs available and the skills needed to fill them, community colleges can respond quickly to close skills gaps by expanding job-training programs.
The role of community colleges in supporting and enhancing economic development in their regions is vital, particularly in rural communities like the one in which my college is located. At River Valley Community College, in New Hampshire, we have taken a very intentional and strategic approach to the skills-gap challenge. We are focused on getting students on a clear pathway to reach their education and career goals, and we are aligning our workforce training with the needs of area employees.
Before we can begin training students for jobs or transfer, we have to get them through the door. To boost enrollment, River Valley is committed to providing early exposure to college for students in grades 11 and 12. We have two early-college programs: Running Start and Catch the Wave. Running Start, a statewide initiative of the Community College System of New Hampshire, provides high school juniors and seniors an opportunity to earn college credits that also meet high school graduation requirements. College-certified instructors teach these college-credit courses at the high schools. Catch the Wave, a local program targeting 11th- and 12th-graders, provides a similar dual-enrollment benefit but is enhanced by offering students the opportunity to come to the college campus to learn in the collegiate environment and participate in student programs.
Once enrolled in the college, our students also have access to a variety of career and academic pathways, including degree and certificate programs, internships and apprenticeships. Several workforce-training grants awarded to the college have made a major impact. We have trained more than 300 students in soft job skills through a WorkReadyNH grant, while a federal H1B grant has funded technical skills training for dozens of River Valley students. Our TAACCCT grant, which draws to conclusion at the end of September, has been another key resource for job training.
For those whose career goals require them to earn a four-year degree once they leave, the Community College System of New Hampshire has taken steps to make that transition as seamless as possible. We have mapped out an articulation agreement with the four public four-year institutions in our state that allows students to be admitted to one of those schools at the same time they enter River Valley or another of the community colleges within the New Hampshire system.
In sectors like health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing and clean energy, where many good jobs call for more than a high school diploma but may not require a four-year degree, community colleges are a perfect solution for providing innovative approaches to addressing the skills shortage. At River Valley, the training we provide for workers in hospitals, manufacturing companies and other businesses in our community is helping to ensure our region’s economic survival. Community colleges don’t always see themselves as part of the discussion when it comes to economic development, but they play a vital role in fueling the economy.
As we engage in the work of helping to close America’s skills gap, our impact has the potential to expand. By providing the training, development and education needed to fill the growing numbers of jobs available now — and those emerging over the next decade — community colleges will be a critical part of the solution to reverse the decline of America’s middle class.