Where Should Community College Training Be Focused?

Published on Jul 6, 2010

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

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Earlier this week a blogger at Inside Higher Ed posed a question relevant to many of our readers: “Should a community college train people for the industries that are currently there, or for the industries that seem likely to be there in the near future?”

I’ve been chewing on this one in light of some recent proposals floating around to get students prepared to certain kinds of manufacturing firms that, in my humble estimation, may not be much longer for this continent. (To be fair, a similar objection could be lodged at certain kinds of journalism programs, though I suspect that journalism will morph rather than die.)

I can imagine arguments on both sides, and I’ll admit being half-convinced by each.

The post and subsequent comments are worth a look. This is a topic we’ve contemplated and written on a lot in the past few months. Most recently, we highlighted an NPR story on Michigan’s “No Worker Left Behind” program that cut right to the heart of the issue: Often the “in-demand” industries that displaced workers begin to pursue are not in need of new workers in two or four years.

This trend obviously leaves newly trained jobseekers in a serious bind, one that the Inside Higher Ed blogger sympathizes with in his post.

Having gone to grad school in an evergreen discipline in the 90’s, I saw and experienced firsthand the frustration of doing everything right only to emerge with a credential nobody wants. Having grown up in a city that’s still paying the price for putting so many eggs in the basket of a single industry, only to wind up with egg on its face, I’m a little nervous about pretending not to notice industrial decline. As late as the 90’s, the American car industry was doing great, riding the wave of SUV’s (and the undercurrent of cheap gas) as far as it could go. We know how that turned out, and it’s not like nobody saw it coming.

It’s one thing to be blindsided by change; it’s quite another to shut your eyes to it and pretend it’s not there.

For on-the-ground insight on the topic, check out a piece by Scott Sheely, Executive Director of the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board, on developing the right industry focus. The articles is geared toward the manufacturing industry, but it’s applicable to other industries as well.

So, as workforce developers, how can we get ourselves up-to-date and assist our ever-changing manufacturing sector? As a general rule, I have found that it’s a relatively simple process. First, be very familiar with the needs, wants, and activities of local industry and second, develop training that directly addresses their needs.

The best solution for community colleges and workforce development professionals, it seems, is to take a multifaceted approach — ensure they are basing training decisions on the best-possible local insight (solid business feedback, up-to-date regional labor market data, skills information) and try to develop industry partnerships as the Lancaster County WIB did for mechatronics training.

We’re curious to hear your thoughts in the comments section. What has worked in your area to ensure local training is leading to jobs?