How Community Colleges Can Help Bring the American Workforce Into the 21st Century

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Last week, I had the good fortune of presenting at the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) annual Workforce Development Institute (WDI) conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. This year’s conference was titled, “Exploring Intersections,” and I was privileged to be on a panel called “Foundation Perspectives on Scaling Innovation.” I spent my time talking about how Skillful is working to shift the labor market to one that values skills above all else.

Over the course of the conference, I was repeatedly struck by the power of these institutions to effect real change in a person’s life. Convenient, flexible, and affordable, community colleges have a long history of graduating students with skills employers need. As millions of Americans struggle to obtain and/or further the skills they need to get good jobs or remain relevant in their current roles, community colleges have a unique opportunity to shape the future of work for the better.

The AACC is uniquely positioned to help move the American workforce into the 21st century; in fact, their mission explicitly says that one of their many goals is to “play a key role in assisting the nation as it passes from the industrial era of the 20th century to the new knowledge-based society of the 21st century.”

But community colleges can’t oversee this transition alone. In talking to other presenters and attendees, two pain points repeatedly came up:

  1. Faculty need more professional development in the community college system. Specifically, they need opportunities to regularly get hands-on experience in the industries for which they are preparing students.
  2. A need for training and materials to support the creation and adoption of competency-based education programs. Many people I talked to said that they would be happy to focus their programs and teaching on skills, but don’t have the tools or knowledge to readily do so.

The solutions to these problems aren’t simple, but it is safe to say that employers, who struggle to get the talent they need, would benefit from closer relationships with community colleges. And students would benefit from competency-based education programs.

JoAnn Burkhart, a professor of Computer and Digital Technologies at the Community College of Aurora in Aurora, Colorado, took Skillful’s Occupational Deep Dives—documents that detail what competencies are needed for hot jobs in advanced manufacturing and information technology—and created a seven-course certificate program in IT Tech and Support. You can learn how she did it in the video. 

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.