Workforce initiatives aim to get back on track, even as Delta disrupts plans

Following 18 months of challenges created by COVID-19, many colleges and workforce agencies were hoping this fall would be the semester of economic recovery and renewed focus on job training.

But the pandemic has thrown yet another curveball with the Delta variant now sweeping the country. Enrollments for this fall appear stronger than they have for the past year, but a significant number of institutions from the West to the East Coast are now expecting that their workforce training initiatives won’t return to pre-COVID numbers this semester. Not surprisingly, however, the impacts are varied and highly regional in nature.

In California, for example, colleges aren’t yet sure what final fall enrollment numbers will be, but report that enrollment in its career technical training programs has remained relatively steady throughout the pandemic thus far. To the north, Washington is seeing a lot of variation across different areas of the state, while community colleges in Colorado are expecting another down year, with enrollment in urban areas especially hard hit.

And places like Ivy Tech Community College, with campuses across Indiana, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York are seeing enrollment soften with the rise of the Delta variant.

The Delta ‘drag’

On the ground: At Ivy Tech, students are expressing a “healthy concern” that the Delta variant could force them into a virtual learning environment again, said Sue Ellspermann, the college’s president. Indiana is showing transmission and hospitalization numbers reminiscent of early spring 2020, so the college recently reinstated its indoor masking policy—and then saw enrollment stagnate.  

“Definitely Delta is dragging things down,” Ellspermann said.

Applications from Black and Latino students are still below pre-pandemic levels, but applications from first-time students not straight out of high school are up. Ellspermann said this implies that students who took a gap year or worked for a year are now returning to education.

Participation in the college’s free program for short-term credentials, called Taking Hoosiers to the Next Level, also remains strong with several thousand students enrolled. But the growth rate in the program, which is supported by the state’s Workforce Ready Grant initiative, has slowed.  

The Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York is also still seeing suppressed enrollment among Black and Latino students, specifically men. Enrollment overall is down about 15 percent compared to prior years. 

“We’ve seen a softening in enrollment related to, and consistent with, what’s happening nationally,” said Anthony Munroe, president of the college. “It’s of concern.”

Getting to the root of the problem

Behind the numbers: BMCC is a federally-designated Hispanic-Serving Institution that has over 20,000 students on its credit side, the majority of whom are female and Pell eligible. This fall instruction is being offered online, in-person, and in a hybrid modality. In past recessions, enrollments at BMCC and in community colleges in general have increased, but as has been much-reported, that has not been the experience this time around. 

BMCC is involved in a number of initiatives to better understand why. They’ve identified some key barriers around the costs and availability of quality childcare and transportation, as well as food and housing insecurity. Students have also listed mental health as one of their top issues.

Munroe said that students of color—and the neighborhoods they predominantly live in—have been especially hard hit in the pandemic. Education and training has not been a priority for residents whose thoughts focus on, “I need to keep a roof over my head,” he said.

Like many community colleges across the country, BMCC relieved certain institutional student debts, and created its own social safety net during the pandemic to assist students with such concerns. 

However, a major new concern has emerged this semester: vaccine hesitancy. BMCC and the City University of New York system have worked to address this with a campaign to provide accurate information on vaccinations and deliver them on-site.

The slow return: Recovery, Munroe said, is just going to take some time. The job losses in New York City have been lopsided: face-to-face industries which tend to have lower wages and are often filled with people of color, have suffered much greater job losses compared to higher-paying industries that could transition to remote work.

So, even as the college still manages the day-to-day response to the pandemic, Munroe is zeroed in on a bigger question: “How do we help our students and our communities position, pivot, and be better prepared for higher wage positions?”

Community centers as ‘barometers’ for training demand

People wait in line, resumes in hand, to apply for jobs during an outdoor hiring event in Las Vegas in April 2021. (John Locher/AP)

In Washington state, enrollment in community and technical colleges has been hit hard as it has elsewhere. 

Marie Bruin, the director of workforce education at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said the colleges have been using the workforce development centers across the state as “barometers” for when they anticipate students returning to workforce training in larger numbers, and they’re seeing variation across the state.

“Delta variant is hitting our state in different areas in different ways,” Bruin said. “The community is responding differently.”

In general though, a lot of adults are looking for more stability before considering new training. Student parents, in particular, need more reliable childcare, Bruin said. And like everybody else, would-be students also have been impacted by the trauma of the past 18 months and now the Delta surge.

“The population has been living under a continued trauma through all of this,” Bruin said. “Trauma begins to impact those decisions.”

Nevertheless, the state colleges board is hearing from employers that the job market is opening back up, and leaders are working to capitalize on that through educational and promotional marketing campaigns about how colleges can prepare workers. Many of the jobs that are coming online aren’t the same ones that were lost earlier in the pandemic, said Laura McDowell, director of communications for the state board.

“Whenever there’s a big shake up in the economy, changes that are already underway in the workforce are accelerated,” she said. 

New partnerships develop under stress

A catalyst: As a silver lining, Bruin said, this economic shake up has led to greater partnerships with the business community, particularly in the allied health field.  “Our connection with industry has increased,” she said. “Industry folks have been robustly participating.” 

And Washington’s community and technical colleges are working to build out programs to address what businesses and communities need, such as health care and early learning. Bruin said this is a new mix for them—previous times of economic hardship created more demand in industry and manufacturing but now the emphasis has switched to human needs.

“In comparison to the previous recession, this is the first time that we are in an environment where the demand from industry coming from human services [has] been the prominent lead,” Bruin said.

Munroe, at BMCC, also said that for all its challenges, the pandemic had created opportunities for new and different partnerships. And the enrollment decline caused them to pause and reimagine what workforce development should look like.

“We want to ensure that we are training individuals for the career opportunities of today and tomorrow,” Munroe said. 

BMCC has developed new partnerships in IT and cyber security. And it’s thinking creatively about how to use new funds—including a recent $30 million donation from MacKenzie Scott—to pull through the pandemic and create new pathways for students.

“We are focused on the pathways out of poverty, economic mobility for our community, for our students,” Munroe said. “There’s value in investing in people.” 

In other places, businesses took a step back

Counterpoint: Community colleges in California and Indiana, however, have had a different experience with industry partners, at least in the early days of the pandemic.

The California Community Colleges saw many partners go quiet initially. When the state first  shut down, a number of the system’s small business partners who hosted interns and noncredit classes had to completely step back as they managed the transition to remote work, said Rafael Chávez, a public information officer for the system. However, by late winter 2021 most of those partners were able to return to normal programming through virtual internships and classes.

Individual colleges have reported that enrollment in career technical training has remained fairly steady, Chávez said, even as the system had an overall enrollment decline of 12 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020. 

In Indiana, Ellspermann at Ivy Tech said they also saw many industry partners take a step back to focus on their own pandemic recovery. Some partnerships even went dormant, as employers were distracted by what was happening in their own workplaces.

“It would be fair to say many of our industry partners have been preoccupied with their own COVID responses,” Ellspermann said.

Parting thought: Now, those same businesses may be suppressing immediate demand for training as they gear back up and hire anyone who is available amid a fierce war for talent. Some employers are even boosting starting pay, which means entry-level workers are less inclined to come back to college and skill up. That creates a challenge—what is good for businesses, and for many workers, right now may not serve them as well down the road as roles continue to change and require new training.

Ellspermann said it might take employers to help nudge these folks to take time off to reskill or to pursue training alongside work.

“We are part of the answer,” she said, “but the employer has a much stronger voice and credibility.”

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