NEW ORLEANS — The billions of dollars that the federal government is investing in a multitude of economic development efforts are starting to flow, but the job isn’t done. In fact, it won’t succeed if the workers aren’t there.
That’s the message Neera Tanden, a White House domestic policy advisor, brought to attendees at the opening session of the American Association of Community Colleges‘ annual Workforce Development Institute (WDI).
For several minutes, Tanden outlined the various federal initiatives geared toward economic development that will need skilled workers, from infrastructure to advanced manufacturing. She noted the Biden administration’s efforts to boost workforce development through registered apprenticeships and programs such as Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants. She dropped various acronyms of new laws like the CHIPS Act and regional clusters like Tech Hubs.
She observed how the efforts aim not only to improve infrastructure, technology and more but also can propel the economic mobility of many families.
But these efforts will only succeed if the workforce is there to do the work, Tanden said. And that’s where community colleges come in. They will prepare workers for those fields, from semiconductor technicians and precision machinists, to robotic technicians, not to mention the construction and trade jobs needed to build the structures.
It’s not the first time federal officials have told community college leaders they are the lynchpins in workforce development. But Tanden’s message to WDI attendees, of which there were more than 800, outlined the implications if the workforce falls short of what’s needed.
“People like to say, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ The truth is, if we don’t have the workers, we will not build this,” she said.
Tanden echoed what other Biden administration officials have said over the past year at various AACC meetings and events that the initiatives are “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities” to transform the country’s infrastructure and economy, while creating middle-class pathways for those who are too frequently left behind.
‘At the head of the table’
Tanden gave several examples of the federal initiatives as well as private company investments. Among the ones that have received much national attention is Intel’s plan for a $20-billion chip-manufacturing project in central Ohio. It will provide 3,000 tech-related positions and about 7,000 construction jobs to build the plants.
Intel’s plan includes many partners — community colleges, universities, K-12, employers and other stakeholders. Columbus State Community College is a leader in Intel’s workforce preparation. It’s working with Intel to determine the skills needed, collaborating with local universities to develop those skills and the career and academic pathways, and reaching out to local schools to ensure leaders and teachers understand what academics and skills students will need to work in the burgeoning regional industry.
But Columbus State President David Harrison, who spoke on a panel at WDI about infrastructure and talent, noted that those networks weren’t just created for this project; they are a result of more than a decade of partnerships.
With economic development opportunities sprouting across the country, Harrison encouraged community college leaders to step up and leverage their networks, and to be leaders in those efforts.
“We’ve got to get comfortable with sitting at the head of the table,” he said.
Misunderstanding in some communities
Despite the opportunities for jobs and careers, college advocates and others say they have challenges in reaching some families, especially in underserved communities. Harrison said many in local communities don’t understand the opportunities, but the college and its partners are working to inform them about the potential through massive development like the Intel project.
“This can truly be generational and changing for families,” Harrison said.
Tanden speculated that families still think a four-year degree is the best, if not only, way to a good career, and parents are concerned whether the skills acquired through workforce programs will transfer to future jobs. Basically, they don’t want to find out there’s no growth opportunity beyond the job they trained for.
The panelists agreed that outreach about the opportunities is key in helping families understand that the jobs are often a starting point for a career path, especially in growing industries.
Rallying for Workforce Pell
Workforce Pell was also a topic of conversation at WDI. As community colleges seek to increase student enrollment, which this past year have been driven mainly by dual enrollment and non-credit career and technical education programs, leaders hope Congress will use the opportunity to help those individuals cover some of their college costs as employers. Meanwhile, employers continue to struggle to find enough workers.
The chancellor of Delgado Community College encouraged attendees to keep informing their lawmakers about the need.
“That’s a game changer for us — for what we do, for who we are, our business partners, as well as the students that we serve,” said Chancellor Larissa Littleton-Steib, should Congress approve Workforce Pell.
She emphasized two-year colleges need to stay true to what they’re known for — being nimble and flexible. That doesn’t apply to just job training, she said. It also includes gauging the needs of students, staff and leaders.
“We have to think about our well-being, the well-being of our students, the well-being of our business partners,” Littleton-Steib said.