Workforce development needs more support

By Matthew Dembicki

To figure out how to develop a robust workforce pipeline, especially as businesses struggle post-Covid to find skilled workers, it makes sense to look at what’s preventing people from enrolling in programs that provide the skills for those jobs.

Take the situation of Victoria Browning, a student at the Community College of Aurora (CCA) in Colorado. Previously, Browning held a full-time job earning $14 an hour to support two young children while mulling how to deal with student debt. Through a U.S. Department of Labor grant, the college created a program that offers students like Browning childcare, college counseling and career support.

CCA President Mordecai Ian Brownlee told Browning’s story Thursday at a House Small Business subcommittee hearing on ways to help businesses find the skilled workers they desperately need. Many Americans want to upgrade their skills or learn new ones for a different career, but too often they face obstacles such as child care, transportation, broadband access and more, he said.

Brownlee thanked Congress and the president for resources allocated during the pandemic to colleges, students and communities to help alleviate some of these issues. But many challenges remain. For example, a college can issue laptop computers to students for remote learning, but that doesn’t mean they have sufficient broadband at home to access the courses.

“Community colleges like ours stand on the front lines and in service to the most disadvantaged students and those hardest impacted due to the pandemic,” Brownlee said.

Ways to help

Brownlee and others also emphasized more federal funding for programs such as TRIO, Title V Hispanic-Serving Institutions, registered apprenticeships and other related programs would help to expand such services to help students succeed. He also advocated for allowing students to use Pell grants for certain short-term training programs, noting it would provide a first step toward better jobs for many.

More funding and changes to Pell eligibility would benefits businesses, too, Brownlee said. Such changes would “provide the resources to create and sustain efforts aimed to retool and upskill the workforce necessary to power small businesses and local industries while helping our most struggling students finance college,” he said.

Underinvested in CTE

Several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that there’s an “underinvestment” in career and technical education. And even though the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will open more job opportunities, those slots may go unfilled if there isn’t a skilled workforce ready for them.

“Over the past decade alone, the workforce system has seen a nearly 20% decline in federal funding, when adjusted for inflation,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colorado), who chairs the Subcommittee on Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Workforce Development. “I think we are seeing the impacts of this investment in today’s economy.”

Diane Benck agreed that more federal funding is needed. She owns West Side Tractor Sales Co. in Illinois and testified at the hearing on behalf of the Associated Equipment Distributors. She noted that funding for federal Perkins Act programs — which support technical education programs at secondary and postsecondary institutions — hasn’t kept pace with the demand or the nation’s needs.

President Joe Biden recently released a budget for fiscal year (FY) 2023 that proposes less funding for Perkins state grants than the program received in FY22. But it would provide substantial increases in other key areas for community colleges, including TRIO, Title V and Strengthening Community College Training Grants.

A persistent perception problem

The stigma of skilled trade and technical jobs still persists in the U.S., but that perceived image may be shed if K-12 students and families learn about good-paying jobs in the field and training opportunities that cost a fraction of a four-year college degree, according to some the speakers, who also included representatives from a union and think tank.

Community college job training programs, registered apprenticeships and other types of workforce development options can lead to family-sustaining careers, but too often families don’t explore those opportunities because they are focused solely on four-year degrees, Benck said. Few K-12 schools mention trade and technical training as a postsecondary education option — and an ever-shrinking number of secondary schools offer career and technical education.

Several panel members and lawmakers agreed that now is a good time to emphasize the message as students and families are increasingly concerned about taking on large college debt. For example, a typical service technician at an equipment dealership can easily make six figures, depending on experience and location, Benck said. At her company, apprentices start at more than $22 an hour and can earn $45 an hour within four years, not including benefits and other incentives.

She noted that her company could easily increase its technician workforce by 20%, if it could find qualified workers.

Most service technicians attend a two-year technical college degree program that focuses on heavy equipment technology, Benck said.

“When you include technical education with our manufacturer-mandated and in-house training, a typical service technician logs similar classroom hours to someone with a baccalaureate degree from a university,” she said.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

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