Washington Watch: Community colleges’ role in preparing essential workers

Washington Watch is produced by the AACC office of government relations and policy analysis.

The term essential worker was not coined during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whenever an emergency or crisis arises, such as a hurricane or blizzard, certain functions in the workforce are deemed to be essential, requiring the individuals who perform them to report to work.

We can all name people who fall into this category. These include doctors and nurses, utility workers, law enforcement and fire protection personnel, and IT technicians, among others. Basically, these are the people who allow the rest of us to deal with the situation with a minimum of danger or discomfort.

The pandemic differs from natural disasters in some important ways. The highly infectious virus necessitated the shutdown of many sectors of the economy. This and the actions taken to minimize infection, resulted in the upheaval of millions of lives. For some this meant loss of employment and for essential workers concern for their safety on the job.

First responders are not the only essential workers. Front-line workers, people who stock shelves in grocery stores and other retail staff, mail carriers, meat plant workers, warehouse and transportation workers, farmers, and custodians and janitorial staff, joined the ranks of recognized essential workers.

The urgency of the pandemic prompted the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of the Department of Homeland Security to issue guidelines for keeping safe the “essential critical infrastructure workers.” Education is one of the sectors under which numerous occupations are listed. Not surprisingly, “educators and operational staff facilitating and supporting distance learning” are identified as essential.

Employment, earnings, and prospects for essential workers

As part of its Occupational Outlook Handbook series of reports, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published an issue focused on select occupations under the essential work rubric. Employment, median earnings, as well as entry level education requirements and on-the-job training information is provided for 2019 and projected openings for 2029. Projections, the report reminds us, are based on long-term trends and do not account for short-term events, even as drastic as the pandemic. Ten occupations are selected in three general areas: public health and safety, essential products, and other infrastructure support.  

Required minimum educational credentials

Of the 10 healthcare and safety occupations, nine listed a postsecondary certificate or degree as the minimum educational requirement, including six with a bachelor’s degree or above. In comparison, none of the occupations in the essential products category listed a postsecondary credential as the typical entry level education requirement. The 10 occupations in the other infrastructure group were split between three with bachelor’s degrees or above requirements, seven with high school diploma or equivalent, and one with a requirement varying by specific job.

The listed entry level education requirement is what is “typical” for that occupation. This, however, masks the variations in the level of education of the current workforce. There is another related requirement or factor, on-the-job training.

Prominent role of community colleges

Community colleges play a significant role in preparing students for essential occupations including, but not limited to, conferring postsecondary awards (i.e., sub-baccalaureate certificates and associate degrees) listed as entry level requirements. Some students pursue a non-credit credential, including an industry-recognized certification or as part of an apprenticeship or receive training or retraining as part of an employer paid or assisted credit or non-credit program.

For some occupations whose minimum entry level education is listed as a bachelor’s degree, however, it is not the typical requirement of a substantial portion of the current workforce.

Health and safety essential workers

Registered nurses, who represents the largest employment group of more than three million nationwide, list a bachelor’s degree as the typical entry level education requirement. Yet, according to O*Net the highest educational credential of almost two-thirds of registered nurses in the current workforce is an associate degree. Community colleges conferred 74 percent of the total associate degrees in nursing in academic year 2018-19.

Another health and safety occupation requiring a bachelor’s degree is clinical laboratory technologist or technician. Currently, almost one-third of medical or clinical laboratory technicians and technologists have an associate degree. In 2018-19, community colleges awarded 74 percent and 70 percent of associate degrees in these two fields, respectively.

Two other essential occupations are emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics and radiologic technologists. For EMTs, a postsecondary credential is listed as the entry level educational requirement and community colleges accounted for 88 percent of all the certificates awarded in 2018-19. An associate degree is the minimum educational requirement listed for radiologic technologist, with community colleges conferring 69 percent in 2018-19.

Apprenticeships and essential workers

Although listed as not requiring any postsecondary credential but instead an apprenticeship, most working electricians (59 percent) hold a postsecondary certificate. Six out of ten certificates in the electrician field were awarded by community colleges in 2018-19.

Community colleges partner with employers in apprenticeship programs, including for electricians. While most of the apprenticeship programs are in the traditional fields of construction trades and manufacturing, some community colleges are involved in what are termed a new breed of apprenticeship programs, many including essential occupations in healthcare, information technology, agriculture, and financial services. In addition, under a three-year Department of Labor initiative, the American Association of Community Colleges is working to expand apprenticeships across the country.

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.