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Building a Technically Skilled Workforce

Partnerships between Community Colleges and Industries Are the Key

SOURCE: AP/Patrick Semansky

A doctoral student in biomedical engineering looks at stem cell samples through an inverted microscope in a lab at the Johns Hopkins University medical campus in Baltimore. For the United States to keep its leadership position in the global economy, our workforce must be able to keep pace with the knowledge and innovation that drives the development of new industries.

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Read the full report (pdf)

Read the executive summary (pdf)

Read the report in your web browser (Scribd)

See also: Overview: Series on U.S. Science, Innovation, and Economic Competitiveness, Rewiring the Federal Government for Competitiveness by Jonathan Sallet and Sean Pool, Universities in Innovation Networks by Krisztina “Z” Holly, Economic Intelligence by Andrew Reamer, and Immigration for Innovation by Marshall Fitz

For the United States to keep its leadership position in the global economy, our workforce must be able to keep pace with the knowledge and innovation that drives the development of new industries. On one end of the spectrum, that means incubating the world’s best scientists and engineers to continue to break down scientific barriers and invent new technologies. But highly educated scientists and engineers are only a small part of the overall workforce, comprising approximately 5 million of the nation’s 150 million workers. Our long-term economic competitiveness also depends on boosting the education and technical skills of millions of middle-skill workers for careers in emerging and highgrowth industries such as health care, biotech, nanotech, clean energy, and advanced manufacturing.

These types of technically skilled workers generally boast an associate’s degree or industry-recognized postsecondary credential, but unfortunately we are falling woefully short in our efforts to develop a sufficient number of these middle-skill workers. We are currently on pace to encounter a shortage of nearly 5 million workers with postsecondary credentials—such as welders and nursing assistants—by 2018. Such an eventual shortage of qualified workers to fill these skilled positions will result in slower economic growth and a lower standard of living.

But there is a solution. We already have an underlying system in place—the community college system—that can be modified and scaled up to meet our longterm needs for middle-skill workers. The community college system sits at the crossroads of higher education and the professional world. Community colleges serve a more diverse student body than four-year colleges. And they also have experience working directly with private sector employers to design and adapt programs to address specific labor market needs.

To produce more of the skilled workers that America will require to be globally competitive, we recommend implementing a competitive grant program to spur innovation in our community college system. More specifically, the grant competition should be used to scale up the availability of community college and industry partnerships that lead to associate’s degrees and one-year certificates with labor market value.

Our proposed Community College and Industry Partnership Grant program would encourage bottom-up collaborations between community colleges and groups of businesses or industries. The grants would combine public and private resources to create alternative college education programs that are tightly linked to regional economic development. By partnering with private industry, these programs ensure that academic credentials are directly linked to current job requirements and that program expansion is based on future job openings.

Indeed, these kinds of private-public partnerships are already proving their worth in meeting the needs of three important constituencies:

  • Students and workers obtain postsecondary credentials that prepare them for skilled careers that pay middle-class wages
  • Local businesses gain employees with specific skills to match their needs
  • Regional economies gain a competitive advantage over their global competitors

We detail two of the more successful of these partnerships in this paper. One involves United Parcel Service, the state of Kentucky, and Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville. The other features Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles, Oregon, alongside Acciona Energy North America (a unit of Spanish energy company Acciona SA), global engineering company Black and Veatch, chip maker Intel, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a pilot curriculum for a renewable energy technology program.

To expand this kind of necessary collaboration through our proposed Community College and Industry Partnership Grant program, we recommend converting the postsecondary portion of the so-called Perkins Career and Technical Education State Grants—approximately $300 million to $400 million annually—into a nationwide grant competition. Shifting to a competitive grant would redirect approximately one-third of Perkins CTE funding, which is now targeted toward these same kinds of middle-skill worker training programs, toward programs with a more direct link to regional labor markets. We also believe that a competition to fund this kind of public-private partnerships holds the greatest potential to spur innovation and attract matching funds from the private sector.

In the pages that follow, this paper makes the case for a competitive Community College and Industry Partnership Grant program. We first discuss our projected shortage of skilled workers and then outline a proposal to increase the number of workers earning associate’s degrees and one-year credentials via this grant program—an expansion necessary to support long-term innovation and maintain our economic competitiveness.

Louis Soares is the Director of the Postsecondary Education program and Stephen Steigleder is a Policy Analyst with the Postsecondary Education Program at the Center for American Progress.

Read the full report (pdf)

Read the executive summary (pdf)

Read the report in your web browser (Scribd)

See also:

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