House lawmakers on Thursday heard about how community colleges are helping to prepare workers sought by small businesses or to become self-employed — and they also had a chance to ask what Congress can do to foster those connections as employers across the country scramble to find skilled workers.
As U.S. employees rethink where they want to work and what careers they want to pursue in the post-pandemic economy, community colleges are well-positioned to help workers who want to upgrade their skills for a new position or venture out on their own. But many workers face challenges in finding the time or resources to enroll. The House Small Business Committee’s Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Workforce Development Subcommittee on Thursday explored some of those barriers and how to address them.
Accessing affordable childcare was among the top issues — and it is an area that the Build Back Better Act would significantly support if passed by Congress. Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and a member of the American Association of Community Colleges board of directors, said a grant through the U.S. Education Department’s Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program allows the college to help its student parents, who often struggle to balance work, family life and school.
“One of the reasons a program like this is so impactful is because it allows student parents to focus on being a student,” she said.
Small businesses typically look to train only a few workers, and it is often not economical to develop a program to do that for so few people. But the panelists noted that if small businesses — even competitors — can work together to fulfill their training needs, they would have a stronger pool of workers. That’s what several small businesses in the HVAC sector did in New York, where Kress previously was president at Monroe Community College.
Kress noted that NOVA, like many other community colleges across the country, has program advisory councils, with half of the members coming from small businesses. The results of those partnerships have been striking, especially during the pandemic, she said. Over the last 12 months, NOVA has connected almost 600 small businesses to its graduates and current students.
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Kress also highlighted the success of Virginia’s FastForward program, which funds short-term training programs tied to regional workforce demands. On average, the program has produced a 24% gain in income for participants and a 28% increase for those in low-income ZIP codes, she said.
FastForward has been crucial in helping the local workforce emerge from the pandemic, Kress continued. Over the last year, enrollment in the program at NOVA has jumped by more than 55%. Enrollment among Hispanic students has risen by 80% and by 233% among Black participants, she said.
“These are individuals who can see the connection between FastForward training, the certificates and credentials they earn, and the jobs they can find in a very short period of time,” Kress said.
Kress added that poverty is intergenerational, which is why programs like FastForward and childcare support are so critical to providing an opportunity.
“You are changing not just the life of that individual, but you are changing the trajectory of a family, simply by supporting childcare,” she said.
House members also heard about various programs that help students who want to work for themselves. About 75% of the nation’s roughly 1,200 community colleges have entrepreneurship training or support programs of some kind, said Rebecca Corbin, president of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship. About one in five community colleges have a small business development center on campus. In North Carolina, all 58 community colleges in the state have small business and technology development centers on campus, which could serve as a national model, she said.
Corbin also provided examples of various community college programs that serve entrepreneurs, including venture labs, business incubators and maker spaces. Kress added apprenticeships to the list. They are growing as a workforce development tool in areas such as information technology and healthcare, which are not traditional apprenticeship fields. NOVA has partnered with Amazon Web Services to offer apprenticeships in the technology sector, and earlier this year the college in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., joined the new Greater Washington Apprenticeship Network, which helps small businesses that don’t have the capacity to add apprenticeship programs.
Short-term Pell and infrastructure
Congress can help these workforce development efforts by extending Pell Grant eligibility to quality short-term training programs and by providing additional resources, said Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System. There is bipartisan support for so-called short-term Pell, especially in the Senate, but so far efforts to pass legislation have fallen short.
“Financial aid adaptations, like short-term Pell, could dramatically increase enrollment specifically for low-income, marginalized, adult students who are most in need of training,” Garcia said.
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Congress could also allocate more funding to help community colleges with the cost of running career and technical education programs, which are typically more expensive because of the cost of equipment and require more highly paid instructors than traditional academic programs, Garcia said.
“For example, programs in information technology, healthcare and advanced manufacturing are in great demand but are also among the most expensive programs to offer,” he said. “In order to maintain our roles as leading providers of workforce training and maintain affordability for students, it is critical that we make meaningful investments in career and technical education infrastructure at our colleges.”
Reaching high school counselors
Subcommittee members questioned if community colleges could work more closely with high school counselors to provide more information about two-year colleges as a postsecondary option, especially about their career and technical education programs.
Garcia said that unfortunately many high school counselors — who typically attended four-year institutions themselves — don’t know much about community colleges.
“They know their four-year institutions. They don’t know us,” he said.
Some colleges are trying to change that. He noted that Front Range Community College invites all local high school counselors four times a year to discuss what programs the college offers and to share information about career placements and job earnings of its graduates.
Still, there’s a lingering stigma about community colleges that is hard to break, Garcia said.
“We speak about how we love community colleges, but how many of our colleagues, how many of us, want our kids to go [there],” he asked.
Garcia also noted that high schools in general gauge how successful they are based on how many of their students attend competitive four-year institutions.
“Guidance counselors, just like school principals, often are measured in terms of their success in how many students are sent to selective four-year institutions, not by how many students they send to community colleges, even if those students are ultimately very successful,” he said.