We need a national strategy on middle-skill jobs. Without it, here’s what colleges can do.

There are three key lessons colleges can apply to their approach to career technical education now, writes Jennifer Zeisler of ECMC Foundation.

Workers in middle-skills jobs have been essential in getting us through the last two years. They have cared for our sick loved ones amid a grueling public health crisis, worked long hours supporting our IT and cybersecurity needs, fought fires and repaired our grid as severe weather impacted large swaths of the country, and managed complex logistical challenges as our supply chain experiences ongoing disruptions. 

Middle-skill roles—those requiring some education or training beyond high school but not a bachelor’s degree—are not only critical, but account for more than half of jobs in the United States. 

And yet, we lack a national strategy for how to prepare people for them. This is bad for our economy, our communities, and for the millions of Americans for whom these jobs could be a pathway to the middle class. This is especially true for women and people of color, who have too often been excluded from the career and technical education programs that typically lead to middle-skill jobs.

We need state and federal policies that invest in expanding and modernizing career and technical programs. But absent a national workforce training strategy, there are still steps we can take to better serve today’s learners.  

Many in the philanthropic community, myself included, have spent years testing solutions that can inform how best to navigate this sea change across the education-to-employment continuum. Here are three key lessons we’ve learned that postsecondary institutions, particularly community colleges, can apply to advance their approach to CTE now.

1. Prioritizing data collection is worth it.

Data is a useful tool for informing decisions about CTE programs, especially when that decision-making also centers equity and incorporates the perspectives of the groups most affected. Northern New Mexico College, for example, analyzed data collected from local workforce agencies, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Census Bureau to assess the mismatch between local industry demands and the credentials their students were earning.

Their findings informed the launch of a Plumbing and Pipefitters Center of Excellence to prepare their students—three out of four of whom are Latino and many of whom live in rural areas—for positions in the trades that are projected to see steady growth in the future. Nearly two years after launching the program, NNMC leaders continue to use data to ensure student success and explore ways to use this model in other fields.

2. Short-term credentials and longer-term academic opportunities do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Short-term and non-credit programs have become an attractive option for learners seeking a quick path to employment. Some experts warn, however, they could become second-class pathways dominated by students of color and those with low incomes, leaving many stuck in low-wage jobs without career mobility. Being able to stack credentials toward a credit-bearing degree can provide additional economic gains, but many community colleges have erected a barrier between non-credit and credit programs, which makes progression along specific career pathways difficult for students to navigate.

To develop more equitable, resilient and responsive systems, community colleges must bridge the divide between non-credit and credit programs. The FastForward program in Virginia Foundation for Community College Education shows what is possible. The state’s community colleges have been working to better align short-term credential programs, like those for certified medical assistants, with associate degree programs in high-demand healthcare fields, providing a clearer career pathway in fields that disproportionately employ women, people of color, and parents.

Participating colleges have mapped courses to determine how transferable skills developed in non-credit programs could translate to credit programs, co-enrolled non-credit and credit students in courses relevant for both programs, and introduced a “one-door” advising for every student, regardless of their credit status.

3. Effective partnerships with local community organizations and employers can help smooth the pathway to better jobs for more students.

Forgoing wages to participate in training is not an option for many of today’s learners. Institutions and intermediary organizations increasingly are developing and managing work-based learning opportunities that allow adults to earn while they learn. But to be successful, these programs need buy-in across many groups, including unions and employers that have historically had competing priorities.

An example of a successful initiative is the Northland Workforce Training Center—a public-private partnership between employers, educational institutions, and state and local government to offer programs in advanced manufacturing and energy for Western New Yorkers. NWTC’s earn-and-learn approach offers credit-bearing programs combined with paid hands-on work experience, allowing students with financial limitations to gain the credentials and skills they need for careers that provide family sustaining wages and benefits. With 61 percent of their enrollees identifying as women and/or people of color, NWTC also serves as a critical link between good jobs and those who can most benefit from additional training.

Over the past two years, we have seen how the creative, service-oriented problem solvers in middle-skills positions have been essential to the basic functioning of our economy and society. We have also seen the pandemic’s disproportionate economic effect on women and people of color. As we look toward our economic recovery, we will need many more workers—in particular, many more women and people of color—trained for middle-skills jobs that will power our future.

A re-energized career and technical education field, led by community colleges that have long been pillars of their local economies, can restore the promise of higher education for a new era of learners and workers.  

Jennifer Zeisler is senior program director of career readiness at ECMC Foundation.

Editor’s note: ECMC Foundation is a financial supporter of Work Shift. Read more about our policy on transparency and editorial independence here.

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