Community college rolls out Local Econ 101 for staff

Lorain County Community College is credentialing their advising and career staff in regional economics—in hopes of connecting more students to in-demand jobs.

Aidan McNulty started college at Lorain County Community College, 30 miles outside Cleveland, about a decade ago. He earned his associate degree and went on to get a bachelor’s in sociology. He always did well in his coursework—so he only had perfunctory meetings with advisors along the way.

That was all well and good until he graduated and tried to find a job locally. “I barely had the skills to get a job at the front desk here,” McNulty says.

Now, having worked his way up to an advising position at Lorain, he spends his days trying to make sure other students have a better understanding of how their education can translate to a career.

The college, for its part, is trying to make that work easier and more routine, for advisors like McNulty. It rolled out a new professional development series this past fall—a sort of localized Econ 101, complete with a microcredential—for career counselors and academic advisors.

The series is now part of a larger Career by Design initiative to rethink how everything from advising to the general education curriculum relates to career paths in the northeast Ohio region. The goal is for every student to have a baseline understanding of the local economy and how it might impact their career.

“Students don’t want to pursue even a short-term credential unless they’re sure there is going to be a return on investment,” says Marisa Vernon White, vice president for enrollment management and student services.

“It’s no longer, ‘Come here and we’ll help you fulfill your dreams,’” she says. “That’s part of it—but it’s, ‘Come here and you have a better than even chance of ending up in something that’s going to change your trajectory.’”

The big idea: Lorain, like many community colleges across the country, has long had deep ties to local industry—whether through business councils, registered apprenticeships and other customized training, or its innovation fund for early-stage entrepreneurs. And it’s recognized nationally for its focus on driving economic growth in its region, particularly in advanced manufacturing.

But, says Vernon White, that focus too often stopped with the college’s leadership.

“The college thinks strategically about the economy and works a lot with employers, but that wasn’t getting to the frontline,” she says. “Everybody needs to know what’s going on and the context in order to be able to deliver it to students.”

Crash course in the regional economy

Photo by Kenneth Sponsler via Shutterstock

The details: This year, the college partnered with Team NEO, the local economic development organization, to develop a professional development curriculum for its academic and career advisors. 

The five-week series gave staff a highly localized economic overview, with a focus on:

  • Talent gaps and employment disparities by race and gender
  • The top three sectors in the region—information technology, healthcare, and manufacturing—and other high-growth sectors of work
  • The strongest opportunities for graduates to earn a family-sustaining wage in northeast Ohio

In between each weekly session, participants completed assessments. Seventy staff members attended at least part of the series, and more than 40 completed it and earned a career designer badge created and certified by the college.

The goal of the badge, Vernon White says, is to signal to students and employer partners that they have an industry knowledge that sets them apart.

We wanted to be able to demonstrate that these are not just any academic advisors or any career advisors,” she says. “These people really are the gateway to opportunity and they know where they are.”

In practice: McNulty, the advisor, says some people were overwhelmed by the amount of data presented in the series. But he and others have already put it into practice.

He regularly consults data on the regional job outlook when working with the 400 or so students he advises. They are concentrated in the liberal and creative arts, so connections between their majors and the job market are often less clear than for students in applied majors.

Since the workshop series, McNulty has found himself asking more questions about what a student hopes to do with a particular major.

A student recently came to him because they were struggling with the math in their courses in computer gaming and simulation–their chosen major–but were having a lot of success in arts classes. He immediately thought about computer animation, which is less heavy on computer science and math and more so on art and design.

But he spent some time with jobs data and realized there were jobs available locally in computer animation, but almost none were entry-level. Now, he could have a more sophisticated conversation with the student:

  • Were they willing to move, say to Pittsburgh, for a few years to get experience?
  • Or were they willing to attempt remote work?
  • Or would graphic design–with a lot of jobs locally, but perhaps lower pay–be something else to consider?

“I don’t have all the answers, but that gives them something to think about,” McNulty says.

Designing for career

Next steps: The hard part now, he says, is making those kinds of conversations more systematic. That means engaging with students on careers from the get-go and making sure that they’re giving some foundational information to all students.

“That’s where I’d like to see more streamlined stuff—Okay, this semester, you’re going to get this, next semester, this—so that everybody is getting some of the same information,” McNulty says.

The advising team, he and Vernon White say, is developing standardized practices and materials that will address that need. Some careers content also may be embedded in student orientation or first-year experience courses. And the college offered a condensed version of the jobs series to all faculty and staff in the spring, with about 50 participating.

It’s part of a larger effort at the college to inject jobs data and career-oriented thinking into a whole range of core functions, including the first-year experience and the general education curriculum. Dubbed Career by Design, it mirrors the Completion by Design effort and was inspired by the Aspen Institute’s Workforce Playbook.

“People are trying to think in different and creative ways now,” says Vernon White. “How do we think about how our academic programs connect to these hot fields in different ways?”

Photo via Shutterstock

Who gets hot jobs

Equity and jobs: Key factors the college will be considering in its work are equity and economic opportunity. It’s part of a larger conversation in the region around who gets what kinds of education and jobs.

Three years ago—just before the pandemic started—the local economic development board, Team NEO, brought together more than a dozen business and higher education leaders to dig into newer research looking at supply-demand gaps in talent and racial equity.

  • Black residents make up 14 percent of the population in Northeast Ohio, and Latino ones account for 5 percent. And they are underrepresented in all of the 20 most in-demand jobs except one.

“If we just had parity between their representation in the workforce and those in-demand jobs, we could close our talent gap by about a third,” says Jacob Duritsky, vice president for strategy and research at Team NEO. “But we don’t have that.”

The challenge doesn’t begin or end with colleges, but the data showed they play a big role. Both Black and Latino students in the region are underrepresented in majors that align with manufacturing, healthcare, or computing and IT.

  • Black graduates account for just 7 percent of degree or certificate completions in those fields, and Latino ones just 3 percent.

That aligns with what Lorain has started seeing in their own data, as they’ve begun disaggregating it by race, gender, age, and income and looking at how enrollments align with career fields.

  • Black, Latino, and low-income students are underrepresented in computing, healthcare, and manufacturing fields and overrepresented in ones like education, justice, and human services.
From: “Equity Progress Update 2021,” Lorain County Community College

“We have to ask, ‘Are we perpetuating gaps because of who we educate in specific programs?,’” says Vernon White.

She stressed that the region needs teachers, social workers, and police officers—especially ones of color—and that the college is committed to filling that role. But they want to be clear with students about the demand for jobs, potential wages, and how their careers might progress. “We want to make sure that students are making informed decisions.”

At the regional level, Duritsky says, the working group of college presidents and business leaders are grappling with challenges around enrollment and capacity in IT programs and other in-demand fields.

In the near-term, a handful of colleges are interested in bringing the economic training series to their own advising and career staff. Team NEO is thinking about how to shift staff resources to make that happen.

“People who are on the frontlines of working with students need to be thinking with a market-based mindset,” Duritsky says.

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