Investing in skills training for economic security

Scott Ralls, president of Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina, testifies Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (Screenshot from streamed hearing)

More than a year into the pandemic, unemployment rates remain high, particularly among women, communities of color and people with disabilities.

“This is not a problem that’s going to fix itself,” Sen. Patty Murray said Tuesday during Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing. Providing workers with pathways to good jobs and life-long learning opportunities that lead to economic security is critical, she said, but many barriers exist to high-quality skills training.

Community colleges are key to helping workers connect with that skills training and with employers.

Building better ladders

Like at many community colleges, students at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina are more likely to come from working and lower income families, and also be classified as nontraditional, said Wake Tech President Scott Ralls, who was among the testifying witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing.

“This year was a particularly nontraditional year for them – the working student who also is the essential clerk in the grocery checkout line, the student parent who is also serving as a teacher at home,” Ralls said.

Wake Tech is focusing much of its support on economic and workforce recovery. But despite being located in a high-tech hub area with steady job growth over the past decade, “we lag as an economic ladder, meaning if you grow up poor as a child in our region, the chances of remaining poor as an adult are higher than in many other metropolitan areas,” Ralls said.

To address this, the college is concentrating on “ladder economics,” meaning fostering a focus on each rung of the career ladder. Those rungs include meaningful employer engagement, data-infused career development, training opportunities that provide a foothold to a job with recognized industry certifications and foothold to degrees with prior learning credit, and coordinated high school pathways through career and technical education (CTE) and dual enrollment. Another vital rung is well-developed apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities.

“At Wake Tech, we are sharpening our focus on each rung and the partnerships – employer partnerships, educational partnerships, workforce system partnerships – that form the vital planks that connect the rungs of the ladder together,” Ralls said.

The college also is working to ensure programmatic alignment – alignment of high school dual-enrollment opportunities, short-term training and prior learning credit, applied degrees and university transfer options – and increase credential stackability.

Ralls expanded on the importance of making connections between high schools and community colleges.

“When we talk about pathways and ladders, it’s not just our pathways; it’s their pathways,” he said. “We must cross institutions.”

Opportunities for improvement

One way to provide more opportunities for students and workers to connect with high-quality skills training is through extending federal financial aid eligibility to students and workers enrolled in short-term programs, Ralls said.

The topic of short-term Pell grants came up several times during the hearing.

“So many students need those short-term credentials to get a job, and need jobs to get further education,” Ralls told the committee.

Among his other suggestions was strengthening federal apprenticeship policies that foster alignment with educational ladders, including competency-based program, and authorizing a community college-led job training program that provides funding for the development and launch of career ladders in high-demand job areas that involve costly instructional expenses.

Like Ralls and many on the Senate HELP committee, Maria Flynn, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, agreed that expansion of Pell for short-term credentials is a critical workforce investment, and can help “put equity at center of recovery efforts.”

More investments through the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act also are necessary. The “system’s limited resources are spread too thin, performance across the more than 500 local workforce areas varies, and the entire workforce ecosystem needs significant modernization,” she said.

Flynn also noted that modernizing the workforce means investing in a robust career navigation system so that people can make well-informed education, career pathway and employment decisions.

“We do a terrible job of providing individuals with information on what are the best bets for them,” Flynn said.

In addition, she suggested the adoption of evidence-based strategies and grants to community colleges for scaling of models – such as those through Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program – as well as a “system that can successfully meet the needs of diverse populations.” Along the way, she said, there must be “authentic ways to incorporate worker voice in the design of systems and programs.” 

Deniece Thomas, deputy commissioner of workforce learning and development at the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, also pushed for more “sustainable and flexible funding options” to support emergent and incumbent workers.

“Reactive and restrictive funding hinders states’ ability to plan and execute as needed,” Thomas said.

In Tennessee, 250,000 jobs remain unfilled. There’s a push to re-engage sidelined workers. Worker supports have been crucial to getting people back in the workforce, particularly in regards to helping with access to childcare, transportation and broadband.

If those challenges are addressed before a student enters a program, Thomas said, there’s a better chance that student will complete the program.

Employer supports

From the employer side, Alejandro Mendoza, human resources director at Optimax Systems in New York, said his company is struggling to find enough skilled workers to fill open positions. The company offers about 1,000 hours of training each month, and typically has 25 to 30 employees enrolled at the nearest community college each semester. Optimax offers apprenticeships and tuition supports, but also relies on “public policy and public investments to meet our needs and the needs of our community,” Mendoza said.

He called for more public support for partnerships that bring together small and mid-size companies and community and technical college and the public workforce system. And “dedicated resources to support industry partnerships – through WIOA reauthorization, National Apprenticeship Act reauthorization and any response or recovery to the current crisis – is critical to our ability to support the infrastructure we already have established,” Mendoza said.

Another suggestion: Better alignment of postsecondary policy with industry demand and worker to increase the ability to upskill or reskill workers.

“If Congress expanded financial aid to anyone seeking skills training, students in high-quality, short-term training programs, not just those seeking traditional college degrees, Optimax could offer career progression for even more workers than we do today,” Mendoza said.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.