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A renewed focus on regional recovery


​State leaders should take a closer look at how community colleges can help in regional economic growth, according to a new report.

States should develop a strategy that integrates workforce and economic development based on improving student success in community colleges and promoting regional progress through partnerships that ensure a stable supply of skilled workers for area employers, according to the report from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

Community colleges are especially critical in preparing students for “middle skill” jobs , which will grow faster than any other category in the next seven years, the report said.

“Our more than 1,100 community colleges stand at the intersection of workforce demand and supply, making them a valuable resource for future economic development,” said Richard Kazis, senior vice president at Jobs for the Future and the author of the report. “But we risk squandering this resource if we do not re-shape state and regional economic development strategies to get maximum value out of our investment.”

To leverage two-year colleges to bolster economic development, states must address two critical shortfalls:

• Too many students who seek a community college credential fail to earn one
• There is a disconnect in many states between the effort to develop the workforce and plans to strengthen the economy.

To forge closer links between workforce and economic development, the report recommends:

• Articulating a clear vision to align workforce development, postsecondary education and economic development regionally and to publicize progress
• Improve student success and credential completion at community colleges
• Target priority cluster and industry sectors critical to regional competitiveness and expansion, promoting partnerships that engage community colleges in economic development

The report emphasizes much of what has been discussed among community college advocates and others over the past few years, specifically: a need for better data to make decisions, closer connections with K-12 and higher education to reduce the need for development education, and serving working adults who need retraining or are seeking new careers.

The report noted innovative programs in workforce development and education across the country, including Washington state, Ohio, Indiana and Connecticut, which tie higher education funding to outcomes. It also cited state efforts such as the Critical Skills Shortage Initiative in Illinois and the Pennsylvania Industry Partnership as examples of aligning postsecondary education and economic growth strategies.

The  report also noted efforts by the U.S. Labor Department, which for several years has emphasized a regional approach to economic development by focusing on growing industries through grant programs such as WIRED (Workforce Initiative in Regional Economic Development) and Community-Based Job Training Grants.

“We have a lot of tools. The trick is to employ them to the best effect,” Kazis said. “It begins with leadership. If states are going to make the most of our considerable human capital, it will require expending some political capital.”