Ready for recovery


The latest unemployment rate for El Paso, Texas, is about 17 percent, compared to 3.8 percent in February prior to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s likely to approach and even surpass 20 percent when final figures for April are available. 

Those are numbers that William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College, and other members of the local workforce and economic recovery task force he serves on are closely watching. While it’s uncertain what jobs will look like when the pandemic subsides, a couple of things are certain, according to Serrata: Attaining a postsecondary credential will be even more important, and community colleges will be expected to play key roles in facilitating the economic recovery.

“Community colleges have always been at the center of invigorating local, regional and state as well as national economies,” said Serrata, who serves on the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors. “It’s vastly important that we are on these task forces. Because, quite frankly, we are going to be the ones that are expected to be economic social mobility engines in our communities.” 

Already changing

Two-year colleges have already been at work in gauging what their communities would need to rebound. Many college leaders serve on local economic and workforce boards and have been in contact with those members. College presidents also have been talking with state and congressional leaders and staff to convey what their institutions do and what they can do. 

Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts, last week emphasized to the chair of the legislature’s higher education committee that two-year colleges are agile and provide high-quality, low-cost education and training in communities. They are ideal to revamp the workforce, she said.

Even prior to the pandemic, several industries were looking at workforce changes, with many companies planning to transition into more automation, said Salomon-Fernández, who serves on a number of local and regional economic-related organizations, including the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Community Advisory Development Council. Businesses are seeking solutions to ensure that they can continue to operate despite any future disruptions, whether it’s a pandemic or other events, she said.

“We knew what we had to get ready for,” Salomon-Fernández said. “What we are seeing now is an accelerated move to things that are more remote.”

Similar situations

Other two-year college leaders serving on similar task forces and other councils are delivering the same message, according to Community College Daily interviews last week with more than a dozen college presidents across the country.

Byron Breland, chancellor of San Jose/Evergreen Community College District in California, will remind the Silicon Valley Economic Recovery and Resilience Council about the role the district already plays in economic and workforce development in ways that are efficient and cost-effective in helping resident prepare for livable-wage jobs. 

For example, tracing is an in-demand job that will likely continue to grow, and it pays well, too, Breland said. Other jobs the college district anticipates will continue to grow in demand include coding, clouding computer and other STEM areas. 

“We are able to move and pivot to the needs of business and industry, which may be very different in a post-COVID-19 economy,” Breland said.

Related article: Preparing to re-open this fall

There are also immediate workforce needs that community colleges must tackle. Training new nurses, EMTs, respiratory therapists and other healthcare workers is a top priority, said Maureen Murphy, president of the College of Southern Maryland (CSM), who noted that community colleges train about 80 percent of first-responders in the U.S.

The goal is to develop ways to properly yet quickly train healthcare students in the pipeline to help alleviate a strained system, she said.

“The folks who are working in healthcare right now are going to be totally burned out,” said Murphy, who also serves on a county nursing task force. 

CSM also has an eye toward the future. The local economic recovery task force that Murphy serves on hasn’t met yet, but the area’s economic development department meets remotely each week. It is gauging what kind of information is needed to help local leaders make decisions, including what metrics are important to examine, she said.

“We’re trying to monitor things which are changing very quickly,” Murphy said.

Many two-year colleges through their small business development centers also are helping small businesses and entrepreneurs by providing them with resources during the crisis. CSM’s Nonprofit Institute is assisting area nonprofits – many of which are financially strapped and need help – to navigate through a flood of information and to connect them with resources to continue their work.

“We are seeing so many things come at us from different directions, and we don’t know what is actually useful and what isn’t,” Murphy said. “The Nonprofit Institute can help there.”

Beyond the next step

Amit Singh, president of Edmonds College in Washington state, plans to deliver a similar message to the countywide economic and workforce recovery task force on which he serves. There’s a short- and long-term approach to determining workforce needs, he said. Snohomish County, where Edmonds is located, has seen the largest number of unemployment filings come from the manufacturing, constructions, retail and healthcare sectors, respectively, and it is imperative to help those workers find jobs, Singh said.

The task force also will study how the nature of work may change and how that will affect training as companies look to become more “economically resilient,” he said. For example, the pandemic may prompt more companies to reconsider where they manufacture goods.

“That might be an opportunity for us as a region to attract more businesses from elsewhere or to bring them back from overseas,” Singh said.

In Michigan, Oakland County’s COVID-19 economic recovery task force – co-chaired by Peter Provenzano, chancellor of Oakland Community College – also is trying to forecast how employer and consumer behavior could change. For example, consumers are likely to alter expectations on product and service delivery, which can have an effect on things rarely considered, such as parking in commercial and residential areas, Provenzano said. Such changes also can affect how colleges train employees for those adjustments, he said.

Salomon-Fernández of Greenfield Community College added that it’s not just about preparing workers for the next job, but rather developing skills that allow employees to think systemically so they can transition to other jobs, if needed. For example, if employees get sick, the goal is to ensure that other employees can easily fill those positions in the interim. Workers will need to better understand how their jobs interact with other functions in a company, as that is what businesses will seek in employees, Salomon-Fernández said.

“We need to be much more integrated in our approach because we are preparing people who need to be systems thinkers,” she said.

It’s also important to instill an “entrepreneurial mindset” in workers, whether they are self-employed or employed at a company. Salomon-Fernández noted how some manufacturers (and even colleges) pivoted to make personal protection equipment (PPE) when their production demands dropped but there was an increased demand for PPE at healthcare facilities, businesses and for personal use.

Several college presidents said such discussions will position companies and employees better for the future.

“One thing I’ve preached about is let’s come out of this crisis stronger,” said Provenzano of Oakland Community College.

Promising prospects

Local and state officials also want graduating high school students to know of all their postsecondary options, said Anthony Iacono, president of County College of Morris, who serves on an economic advisory committee that is gauging the landscape for northern New Jersey. Students who planned to attend a four-year institution may now consider attending a two-year college because of personal financial reasons or because of the uncertainty over what postsecondary education may look like in the fall, he said.

Some students may even decide to try a different career path and study for a trade career in light of the economy, Iacono said. To that point, state officials want to make sure high schools and community colleges work together to help students with those decisions and transitions.

“It’s about aligning systems,” Iacono said. 

Several community college leaders pointed to recent technology updates on their campuses as well as new facilities that will help in the economic rebound. In Stanly County, North Carolina, county commissioners are moving ahead with plans to construct a new building on the campus of Stanly Community College, even in light of expected decreases in sales tax revenue and higher unemployment, said John Enamait, president of the college. In fact, they are interviewing potential architects this week, he said.

The college’s new center will focus on trades training, adding new programs such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical wiring and masonry, while providing more space for established programs such as welding and HVAC. The majority of those programs focus on careers that remain in demand even during the pandemic, Enamait said.

Enamait added that there doesn’t appear to be a drop in local businesses’ expansion efforts, and several companies with plans to relocate in the area are sticking to them. For example, Charlotte Pipe and Foundry – one of the country’s top makers of cast iron and plastic pipe and fittings – is likely to relocate to nearby Stanly County as local leaders last week approved a plan to give the company significant tax incentives. The company aims to add at least 400 new jobs in the area, plus $325 million in taxable capital investments. County leaders hope it will have a cascading effect on the local economy, with more restaurants, stores and other services opening to serve the company’s employees.

If you missed it: AACC held a webinar Friday featuring community college leaders’ strategies and considerations for planning as the nation looks toward re-opening in the wake of the pandemic. A recording and accompanying material are available here.

Randy Esters, president of North Arkansas College (Northark), is watching the two main industries in his service area: manufacturing and logistics. Many of the local plastics and injection mold companies are struggling as demand has slowed or dried up for the parts the companies make, he said.

The area is also a hub for FedEx Freight, whose services remain in demand. However, the college’s training program for those trucking jobs has changed as a result of the pandemic, said Esters, who serves on the Harrison Regional Chamber of Commerce Economic Recovery Task Force. Previously, an instructor could fit three to four students into a truck for training. Now, even one-on-one training in a truck is not allowed and has to be done differently, he said.

The county task force also is examining potential cascading effects of workforce changes. For example, it discussed the effects on closing elective surgeries at the local hospital, which impacts many sectors, from healthcare to the college, too, often resulting in a Catch-22 situation, Esters said.

For example, Northark cannot tap the hospital to provide required clinical experiences for nurses and other healthcare workers – who the hospital needs to replenish its workforce. The same holds true for manufacturers, which provide work-based learning experiences such as internships and apprenticeships for students, who become candidates for jobs, Esters noted.

Childcare is another area that can significantly affect employers and employees. It’s been a main topic of conversation for the task force on which Oakland Community College’s Provenzano serves. He noted many local facilities are linked to K-12 districts, so if schools are close, so is childcare. If they remain closed, it will be difficult for employees when they go back to work, Provenzano said. The task force is also concerned about what might happen if schools and childcare facilities open in the fall but have to close again.

The county is considering offering some financial aid to those facilities – including grants for commercial rent relief – or even asking employers to provide childcare, Provenzano said.

Leverage existing infrastructures

Kristine Young, president of Orange County Community College in New York, plans to emphasize the versatility of public two-year colleges when she participates on the New York Forward Re-Opening Advisory Board, the governor’s blue-ribbon advisory board of more than 100 business, civic, foundation, healthcare and education leaders. Its members include several other two-year college presidents, including Belinda Miles of Westchester Community College, Orinthia Montague of Tompkins Cortland Community College and Ty Stone of Jefferson Community College

Young said she will focus on the benefits of community colleges’ infrastructures: its physical buildings and surrounding campus, and its workforce and services. New York’s 30 community colleges are close for many residents, accessible and responsive to community needs, Young said. Many community colleges already have reached out to local and state officials about potentially using their facilities, from gyms to parking lots, for multiple purposes, such as make-shift hospitals, COVID-19 screening areas, equipment storage and more. 

Young also wants members on the board to realize community colleges’ flexible workforce. Their staff and faculty, who are curricular experts and also often still work in the sector that they teach, are very adaptable and can quickly develop training for broader populations, she said. 

“It’s in their DNA,” Young said.

To help kickstart the economy, many community colleges will likely focus their efforts more on workforce development over the next year or two, she said. That work will require resources, and Young hopes that state leaders will consider where they can draw additional funding, which may include allocations from non-education appropriations.  

“We are not putting our hat out for a handout. We are putting our hand out,” said Young, who also serves on the AACC board of directors.

Help on the federal level

It’s also important to secure more funding at the national level, said Murphy of the College of Southern Maryland. Recent efforts to start a new version of a successful regional workforce development program that the federal government created during the recession about a decade ago is gaining some traction. Congress was already looking at a new job training model based on the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program to help employers find enough qualified workers.

The current crisis will likely shine a brighter spotlight on the effort, said Murphy, who noted the Relaunching America’s Workforce Act recently introduced by Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee. The bill would include $2 billion for such a training program led by community colleges in the $15 billion that it would provide for workforce development. Community college advocates hope that Congress will include the measure in any new coronavirus relief legislation.

“We know what TAACCCT did during the recession,” Murphy said. “I think this is absolutely the right time to mobilize in that way because we are not going to be able to support people the way that we need to with revenue generation. The more quickly we can get people back into the workforce, the more quickly we can get the economy going.”

Extending Pell Grant eligibility to include short-term job training – another change lawmakers had debated prior to the crisis – is another area that may move up in importance in Congress. So-called short-term Pell – for which AACC and other education and training organizations have advocated – was important before the pandemic as employers scrambled to find qualified workers for jobs that required some postsecondary education, said Serrata of El Paso Community College. It will be even more critical now to help displaced and unemployed workers learn skills for new jobs with a living wage, he said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.