In a post-COVID world, community colleges must bridge the gap between education and employment

Dean of Applied Technology Greg Wilson (right) briefs Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey during the 2018 announcement of the Applied Technology Academy, which supplies short-term training to students and incumbent workers, such as those from Caterpillar Co. (Photo: Pima Community College)

“If it can be done online, it will be online.” 

I heard a Hyundai Corp. executive make this observation in a meeting with business leaders as the world struggled to emerge from the Great Recession in 2010. It has proved prescient and consequential, as has its corollary, “If it can be automated, it will be.” Out of the economic upheaval of a decade ago, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – artificial intelligence, cloud computing, automation, and the Internet of Things – has taken hold throughout the 2010s, fusing the digital and physical worlds.

Like some institutions of higher education, Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, over the past half-decade has responded to 4IR with a strategy that evaluates our curriculum, delivery methods and customers in a new way. This self-examination reflects the need to anticipate the convergence of the worlds of work and learning brought on by 4IR.

The new landscape

This spring, the COVID crisis forced Pima to accelerate its change strategy. Like the entire education sector, whatever we could put online, we did. Within a few weeks, we transitioned nearly 2,000 face-to-face classes to a variety of new synchronous and asynchronous formats. (Some 30 percent of our classes were already online.) Our numerous support services also switched to a virtual format. That Pima and its peers were largely successful should once and for all put to rest the myth that higher education is slow to change.

Now the primary challenge facing education, and the nation, is to respond to the harsh economic reality COVID has set before us: Severe unemployment and unprecedented labor market uncertainty. Millions of jobless are eager, if not desperate, to re-skill in order to embark on new careers. 

Countless unemployed waitstaff no doubt covet a new career in information technology, finance or manufacturing. Curiously, a Strada Education Network survey shows that employees in those sectors are most likely to seek jobs in other, presumably safer, occupational sectors. (In April, Forbes bluntly encapsulated the post-COVID manufacturing landscape: “Prepare to Operate With Fewer People.”) However you view the data, all signs point to a period of labor churn like no other.

The COVID crisis has provided higher education with the opportunity to expose the unemployed and under-employed to forms of learning that do not lead to traditional bachelor’s or associate degrees. Pre-COVID, Pima saw evidence of this. While the number of degrees Pima awards has declined, the number of certificates awarded has remained relatively steady. 

Nationally, a Strada survey indicates that by a two-to-one margin, adult learners are seeking to further their education through the attainment of “online non-academic courses, trainings or certifications” over two- or four-year degrees.  As a recent McKinsey and Co. report summarizes, “This represents an opportunity for training to scale the programs built for how people actually learn best: shorter, ‘bite size’ learning modules tailored to the individual and delivered when they’re needed as part of a thoughtful learning journey.” 

Community colleges such as Pima are uniquely positioned to effectively respond to this opportunity. We can span, and hopefully shorten, the distance between education and employment. We can offer a wide variety of short-term, work-based learning opportunities that are powered by emerging networks. Our workforce development team members have their ears to the ground in order to quickly address (and, ideally, anticipate) employers’ changing needs and expectations. We are trusted within our regions for offering affordable credentials that can stack up into degrees. 

Perhaps most importantly, we can provide industry-recognized training, which the data show have a payoff that exceeds that of traditional degrees. A 2020 Gallup/Lumina Foundation analysis found 49 percent of high school graduates with a professional certification are most likely to be in what is considered to be a “good job,” second only to those who have earned a Ph.D. at 57 percent.

Networks are key

The COVID crisis has intensified the need for community colleges to partner with educators, workforce practitioners and businesses to design sophisticated networks that can provide students and incumbent workers with education when and how they want it – the curricular equivalent of just-in-time delivery. A multi-pronged approach is critical, as is affordability, as Pima, like many community colleges, serves a community of very modest means. 

Working within a cohesive workforce ecosystem complements individual outreach. Students can be confident that their stackable credentials have been validated by a wide range of organizations, such as Education Design Lab, which can tap into a network of dozens of employers in a wide variety of industries, or the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3), which brings together educators and industry in the career and technical education space. 

Thus, on one front, Pima is in discussion to connect our students to employment opportunities at global Fortune 100 technology companies. On another, we are part of a consortium of Arizona community colleges offering a Google IT professional support certificate, which prepares students for an entry-level job in IT support, a field with 215,000 unfilled positions nationwide and a median wage of $53,470. The no-experience-necessary program is completely online, self-paced and can be completed in five months. 

The Google project is similar to our participation in the Arizona Advanced Technology Network. Pima and two other Arizona community colleges have created a common curriculum in automated industrial technology (AIT), which provides students and incumbent workers with the competencies to maintain the increasingly automated factory floors of 21st-century manufacturing. The schools worked hand-in-hand with multinational employers with an Arizona presence, such as Raytheon and Boeing, to ensure the curriculum matched their expectations. Moreover, AIT coursework aligns with National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) certifications. 

To train incumbent workers, community colleges must have a laser-sharp understanding of business expectations. Pima has worked closely with local employers to advance projects such as the Applied Technology Academy, in which engineers from the Tucson arm of the heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Co. receive hands-on training in machining, welding and other skills. The students become better designers because they have more complete understanding of the production line. Pima gains an entry point to potentially train hundreds of engineers in a global company.

A nationwide resource for employer-validated training is a critical part of community colleges’ value proposition. Pima is among a network of five community colleges across the nation participating in UNMUDL, a course-to-job marketplace that offers businesses and students a one-click connection to training, employment opportunities and career advancement. Offering the Google IT support professional certificate on UNMUDL’s marketplace is one instance of Pima’s involvement. 

We also are exploring putting our one-of-a-kind autonomous vehicle driver and operations specialist program on UNMUDL, perhaps in a hybrid format in which the classroom components are placed online with the hands-on training offered at Pima. Such a design would capitalize on the college’s deepening relationship with TuSimple, a self-driving technology company.

The stretch goal of community college training endeavors is to make the job fair obsolete. Ideally, education will tie to future employment, with apprenticeships a favored vehicle. To further that goal, Pima is the first Arizona community college to receive registered apprenticeship designation from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. The draw for employers is reduced turnover, lower training costs and improved productivity. For apprentices, it is the opportunity to earn a paycheck while receiving hands-on training and instruction that result in successful, well-paid and highly respected careers. 

In a similar vein, Pima will lead a consortium of Arizona community colleges and industry partners to develop a new model for apprenticeship programs, known as “high-quality, industry-recognized apprenticeship programs,” or IRAPs. Pima and its partners will develop apprenticeships that are competency-based and blend classroom and on-the-job experience. Participants will earn industry certifications along with college credit. 

Needed: next-level organization

Initiatives such as UNMUDL, registered apprenticeships and IRAPs are a solid foundation on which to build a cohesive statewide and regional workforce development ecosystem. Within Arizona’s municipalities, the workforce, business, government and education sectors are collaborating productively, with the Arizona Community College Coordinating Council Workforce Development Committee playing a key role through what essentially has been a successful proof-of-concept stage. The task ahead is to organize our successful efforts at the state, regional and national level, and to obtain consistent funding so workers can be retrained quickly, for the economic turbulence wrought by COVID and 4IR will not abate.

In crises, it is up to leaders to answer the call. In 1933, in his inauguration address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the nation that “Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.” Committing government to take the lead in resurrecting the economy was brave and ultimately wise. President Roosevelt understood that for democratic capitalism to survive – and when Roosevelt took office, it was beset by hostile forces – he needed to take bold action. 

In 2020 and beyond, Pima Community College stands ready to join economic and political leaders in coming back stronger than ever. 

About the Author

Lee D. Lambert
is president of Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona.