Career education starts and ends with local employers

MiraCosta College Superintendent/President Sunita Cooke with biotechnology students. (Photo: MiraCosta)

As a community college educator and administrator for more than 28 years, I have worked on meaningful economic and workforce development efforts in Texas and California at the local, regional and state levels. I am very excited about the central role that community colleges play in fueling our thriving economy and in socioeconomic mobility for the individuals we serve.

Three years ago as I became superintendent/president of MiraCosta College, I had the privilege of chairing a statewide task force focused on how California community colleges could lead a sector-based approach to ensure that our diverse regions within the state could thrive economically.

This is an excerpt from an article in the new issue of AACC’s Community College Journal, which will soon arrive in member colleges’ mailboxes.

The task force comprised representatives from industry, labor, the California Chamber, the California Workforce Development Board and internal college constituents across the state. Twenty-five separate recommendations were collaboratively made, implemented through legislation and resulted in an annual investment of more than $248 million through the Strong Workforce Program.

Building a strong workforce

As the largest provider of workforce training in the nation, California community colleges offer both short-term certificates and associate degrees in hundreds of occupations and educate more than 2.1 million individuals each year. The Strong Workforce Program has encouraged colleges to engage regionally with employers in a more organized and fundamental way to align programs with high-wage, high-demand, middle-skills jobs.

Middle-skills jobs require education beyond high school but less than a four-year degree and make up the largest part of the labor market in California and the other 49 states. All too often, businesses are unable to find enough sufficiently trained workers to fill these jobs. This skills gap keeps regional economies from growing and employers from hiring.

California community colleges are perfectly poised to fill this gap. In southern California, specifically San Diego County, 38 percent of the jobs are middle-skill jobs making up a significant and growing portion of the labor market. A study published last month by the San Diego-Imperial Counties Center of Excellence for Labor Market Research (COE) housed at MiraCosta College projected demand for these jobs will continue to increase nearly seven percent by 2022.

Not only are middle-skills jobs in demand, but they offer well-paying positions with opportunities for income mobility. While the average median hourly wage of all jobs in the San Diego region is $19.30 an hour (or $40,000 annually), the COE study found workers in the top 100 middle-skill jobs earn a median hourly wage of $26.70 (or $55,500 annually).

Robust relationships

Career education begins and ends with employers. A robust relationship between community colleges and local industry partners is the foundation for strong workforce development programs that prepare students for specific in-demand, middle-skills jobs within each region.

On our podcast: A conversation with MiraCosta College Superintendent/President Sunita “Sunny” Cooke on AACC’s podcast Community College Voice, season 1, episode 1.

In the San Diego region, we have these strong relationships. Industry input is invaluable for planning and technological innovation, and provides up-to-date awareness of the needs and expectations of employers. Industry advisory committees help faculty shape new educational programs and identify current and emerging technologies—often resulting in donations to colleges.

Relationships with employers also afford students internship and apprenticeship opportunities, mentorships, interactive lab experiences and other work experience forged through each college partnership. These opportunities in the work environment and interactions with industry professionals enhance the classroom and lab experience and often help graduates gain employment.

From aligning programs with regional job openings to understanding the skill-set required for job placement, local business partnerships are the key to successfully linking students to job openings and supporting the regional economy. In the San Diego region, the vast majority of career education students who complete a program are employed one year after finishing.

Read the full article in the upcoming new issue of CC Journal.

About the Author

Sunita Cooke
is superintendent/president of the MiraCosta Community College District in Oceanside, California, and a member of the AACC board of directors.