Nineteen-year-old Nick Soultanian has been building his own personal computers since the ninth grade, and was adept in code by his senior year of high school. He’s currently preparing for his future career in San Diego’s booming computer science industry, and couldn’t be happier with his choice to pursue it through a community college education.
“The environment here is excellent, I feel like I’m able to talk to people, and I have yet to find a bad instructor,” explains Soultanian, a student at MiraCosta College in Oceanside.
Soultanian, who didn’t want the burden of student loans needed to put him through a four-year degree, is enrolled in courses through MiraCosta’s computer science program, which offers detailed instruction in basic and advanced programming, problem-solving, data structures and computer architecture. Once he’s earned his associate degree or certificate, no matter what path he chooses after, he’ll likely join the hundreds of fellow graduates who have secured jobs from quality assurance analyst to software engineer.
Soultanian has joined what the National Skills Coalition calls the middle-skills workforce, people holding well-paying and high-demand jobs that require more than a high school diploma and less than a four-year degree. These comprise more than half of America’s jobs, yet only about 40 percent of the country’s workers are trained up to the middle-skill level.
A regional approach
California is not immune to this middle-skills job gap. In San Diego and Imperial counties, employers are struggling to find qualified machinists, laboratory technicians, computer network architects and other middle-skills workers.
Three years ago, the state invested in the California Strong Workforce Program and called on community colleges to use innovative regional approaches to revamp technical and vocational training to help close this employment gap. About $16.5 million was allocated to the 10 community colleges in San Diego and Imperial counties. The funding was divided into two pots: nearly $10 million went directly to the region’s colleges to invest in their career education programs, and $6.5 million was allocated to supporting the regional priorities.
College leaders knew their best way to success was to work and think together as a region — not as individual colleges competing for students. Working together through the San Diego and Imperial Counties Community Colleges Association, the colleges stepped up their efforts by collecting regional market data, pulling together career education experts across the region, and revamping programs with an eye on collective impact.
College programs are aligning with the local economy so that students can get the education they need to succeed in high-demand careers that provide a sustainable wage. The colleges are also partnering with area high school districts, local businesses, and workforce and employer organizations, such as economic development councils and chambers of commerce, to better engage with employers and address the skills needed across the education-to-career pipeline.
One of the greatest obstacles to success is that many prospective students are unaware of these opportunities and how to access them. To this end, the colleges created a website, CareerEd.org, where prospective students can learn about all of the career education programs and jobs offered in the two-county area, and launched a joint marketing campaign to highlight career education and the impact it has on students’ lives.
The intense collaboration between the colleges has meant major changes in how career education programs are planned, designed and delivered, but we are already seeing positive results. A recent report, “Leveraging Strong Workforce Funding to Build an Innovative Infrastructure,” highlights what has worked so far and why. Our first key to success was ensuring that this was a unified effort among all 10 colleges: Cuyamaca College; Grossmont College; Imperial Valley College; MiraCosta College; Palomar College; San Diego City College; San Diego Continuing Education; San Diego Mesa College; San Diego Miramar College; and Southwestern College.
The colleges all shared the goal of promoting career education and the premise that community college can be a first-choice career ladder – not a fallback. We are redesigning the community college experience from a student-centric lens and listening to our students’ calls for more help with preparing for and getting good jobs.
We also have expanded work-based learning options and job placement services at all our colleges to provide these critical links to learning and landing a good job. We are ensuring that our students have clear roadmaps or “guided pathways” to their certificates/degrees and ultimately to employment.
Reaching into schools
The state’s investment is paying off by creating more value for students and employers. A more proactive approach on guiding students toward their education goals is helping all of our students earn a degree or certificate in a timely manner, especially low-income students who have not been well-served by traditional education systems.
We are working with employers in the region to design courses that prepare students for the local job market, and developing connections that result in hands-on work experience, internships and networking.
We are also working with high schools and middle schools in the region, visiting classrooms to talk about career education opportunities and bringing students to our campuses so they can envision the kinds of careers they could have. With our help, local high schools are updating their career education course offerings so that students can arrive on day one at a community college ready for more advanced coursework in their career path.
California’s community colleges have a bold and broad mission to prepare students for both middle-skills jobs and university transfers. By working together, the 10 community colleges in San Diego and Imperial counties are uniquely prepared to ensure that our state’s workforce remains one of our greatest assets for generations to come.
Soultanian can’t say enough about his community college education as a career launchpad: “It’s a great place to start, and the instruction is first-rate.”