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Time to Align Education With Labor Market Data

By Jim Jacobs

To make students more employable, colleges must do a better job engaging with industry and be willing to take a hard look at what the job market is telling them.

While a complex national debate occurs in academic and policy circles over whether there is a skills gap, community colleges face a different reality on the ground.

That was the challenge faced by educators on the American Association of Community Colleges’ Implementation Team 5, a group of community college leaders who came together over the last year to consider how to close the nation’s burgeoning skills gap.

As co-chair of that team, it became clear early on that our institutions could benefit by approaching the challenge from a different perspective — by looking at the labor markets and hiring practices our students face.

Less important to us was whether there is a shortage of skills in the workplace. What we homed in on were the many inefficient practices available to connect students with the skills employers need.

Skills gap a reality

U.S. community colleges are not structured to provide a seamless link between what companies need and what is offered on campus by way of learning.

As we began to look for ways to address this gap, our team focused on the need for real-time labor-market data that would give students a sense of the current demand for skills.

Here’s a summary of what we found:

Relationships are key. There are specific steps that community colleges can take to develop lasting ties with dominant sectors or industries. Community colleges should continuously research trends within these industries, hire instructors from the industries — who can bring with them not just experience but also contacts — and maintain ties with students who land jobs in these industries. Colleges can use these connections to refine and improve curriculua nd prepare students for these jobs. Close ties with industry provide a foundation for a long-term career pathway that is useful for students as they select occupations.

Credentials are important. The team discovered that many businesses value nondegree credentials designed to indicate mastery of a particular skill or subject matter as much as or more than a formal degree. These credentials are often earned in ways separate from the traditional 16-week semester. Though nondegree credentials are still evolving at community colleges, our team identified several promising practices for integrating these programs on campus.

At Michigan’s Macomb Community College (MCC), where I serve as president, we feature a production operator program that provides students with a basic orientation to manufacturing work, teaching the skills they need to obtain a job in the field. After students complete our program and secure an entry-level position, they are invited back to MCC to take for-credit classes focused on specific skill sets, all of this dependent on the needs of their employer.

Merging credit and noncredit. As we talked, we determined that students should be able to move seamlessly between credit and noncredit courses. We identified a need for community colleges to work together on the development of curriculua and the implementation of training based on the needs of local employers. The days of comprehensive community colleges that offer a vast number of options are drawing to a close. Instead, community college should offer fewer options based on the needs of local and regional labor markets.

Degrees are not important on their own. It’s not about a piece of paper hanging on a wall; it’s about the pathways these educational experiences unlock for students, the professional skill sets cultivated along the way and the employability and earnings potential that result.

America is behind in the skills race, but we’re gaining ground. Across the country, community colleges such as MCC are ratcheting up the urgency with which they intend to address these concerns.

Jim Jacobs

is president of Macomb Community College in Michigan.

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