Throughout history, the community college has significantly helped America’s economic prosperity, providing it with qualified middle-skills workers. For more than a century, it has been a crucial higher-learning institution due to being a local source of accessibility.
Moreover, community colleges provide training and necessary certification for many essential jobs that require less than a four-year degree but more than a high school diploma. For instance, they offer short-term certificates such as emergency medical services and two-year programs in healthcare and IT.
Remarkable History And Uncertain Future
According to the Partnership Imperative report, 25 percent of American adults over 25 have some college or associate’s degree. That shows that although the majority may strive for a four-year degree, these institutions can be just as attractive and offer significant benefits.
For instance, community colleges are typically at a short commute distance, ensuring access to the middle class to future students from rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods. Thus, they’re cheaper than four-year degree universities but open pathways to different careers and industries.
For the longest time, community colleges were also diverse and had a high rate of student diversity. But despite their commendable history and achievements, they’re undergoing challenging times.
Community College And The Fast-Changing World
The past few years have been nothing but transformative. Although there’s likely not a year that passes without multiple changes, ever since 2020, we have sailed into the realm of the new normal.
The COVID-19 crisis wasn’t easy on anyone, including community colleges. However, that wasn’t the only instance impacting higher education.
Drastic technological developments, novel business models, the emergence of new occupations, and stark demographic and social transitions have coincided with the pandemic.
All of those make it harder to foster and develop workforce-ready graduates. Goals and skills demands keep transforming more rapidly than the traditional educational system can respond.
That means that community colleges face one of the most intimidating challenges in decades – creating a new system that can continuously balance supply and demand for employees with relevant skills and knowledge across U.S. industries. Another daunting difficulty they must overcome is automation.
Rapid technological advancements are among the reasons America struggles with the imbalance in supply and demand for middle-skills jobs. Employers across all industries automated various traditional and manual tasks that before required human input.
But tech tools and systems are no longer what they were in the late 1990s. Instead, they have improved over time, also making looking for good opportunities abroad more possible.
Those are all the factors that contributed to the middle-skills gap and made keeping up with trends and technology necessary but demanding. Today, the supply-demand gap keeps exacerbating, and having the necessary knowledge and abilities to transition into emerging middle-skills jobs requires time, effort, and education adapted to the current times.
Moreover, businesses must keep the same pace as the markets, which means they must adopt automation and look for candidates knowledgeable about modern systems and software. That is a significant blow to community college’s ability to provide relevant programs for students while preserving their physical locations and adapting them to today’s standards.
These institutions struggle with aging facilities and traditional syllabuses that often demand updates and additional educators. Because of that, they can barely afford to think of technological changes and recent trends.
Job Seekers And Fresh Graduates Face An Increasing Number Of Requirements
Most educators are aware that they’re preparing students for a future where even some of the oldest roles and positions now require specific technical skills and competencies. Job descriptions are transforming and merging with digital technologies, leading to hybridization and demanding employees to navigate the tech realm effortlessly.
As a result, traditional jobs are becoming more complex and encompassing the need for knowledge and capabilities that weren’t necessary before. Even though many employers provide on-the-job training to help employees learn to use new technologies, these professionals are already familiar with the company culture, procedures, and core tech systems.
On the flip side, job seekers, especially fresh graduates, must meet the new, expanded scope of job requirements. They need technical abilities and credentials, but an increasing number of middle-skills vacancies include hard skills such as being familiar with networked devices and conducting data analysis.
Additional demands that today’s job hunters encounter are the ability to work under pressure and in fast-changing circumstances, as well as spontaneous communication. These novel requirements clash with what community colleges typically teach their students, pushing them to understand how to merge skills that were historically taught separately.
That isn’t to say that all of these changes happened abruptly and simultaneously. Indeed, they occurred at different paces, depending on the industry, and the transformation was relatively imperceptible.
However, employers are often urged to fill available job openings as fast as possible, which is why they have updated their job descriptions at a surprising speed. On the flip side, the majority didn’t invest in communication with educators and sharing these changes with them.
Since the innovation rate was more manageable in the past, employers felt little to no need to communicate job description updates with community colleges in the past. But today, innovations are happening faster and more drastically than educators can address these changes and tackle them adequately.
And without a meaningful collaboration with local businesses, that task becomes frustrating. Thus, alternative skills and knowledge providers, such as online schools, boot camps, and gig work websites, are emerging equally fast, debilitating educators’ ability to respond to these changes.
As a result, people pursuing middle-skills careers no longer feel they should attend a community college to realize their professional goals and adopt the necessary competencies. Regardless of their ambitions, most can find alternative educational pathways and tools online, even those aspiring to work in healthcare, network support, or retail.
Hybrid jobs are also emerging fast, exacerbating the supply-demand gap in middle-skills positions. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 report found that the need for many middle-skills jobs, such as truck drivers, vocational nurses, and preschool teachers, will significantly surge between 2019-2029.
But even though these jobs are still suitable for community college, employers claim that not enough college graduates have the specific abilities and skills for these positions. Thus, when they can’t find compatible candidates, they tend to respond in two ways: they leverage automation to fill the gaps or start requiring a four-year university degree.
These responses make the middle-skills direr and make it more challenging for community colleges to keep up with the new requirements and changes.
A System That Doesn’t Meet Its Full Potential
Community colleges offer unique advantages, such as physical proximity for local students and affordability, but they still fail to meet the talent composition and quantity that American employers demand. One of the principal difficulties community colleges must tackle is that only approximately 34 percent of their students graduate within three years.
A significant number of part-time students must drop out because they cannot reconcile the difference between their college responsibilities and work hours. Thus, diverse students are even more likely to struggle with graduating within three years and maintaining an optimal work-life balance.
Many community colleges also struggle with outmoded approaches that prevent them from fully grasping the complexity of their students’ lifestyles and schedules. As a result, they often lack flexibility and programs that would allow young people to work while studying and align their non-curricular activities with their classes and workshops.
Sadly, higher education is often in misalignment with what students and graduates expect and what they receive. Because of that, community college leaders and educators should dive deeper into their students’ needs, problems, and aspirations.
That would allow them to design programs that give people enough time and space to work and pursue their other goals and objectives. Moreover, it would help if community colleges acknowledged their external and work-related activities and found a way to include them in the final grades and credits.
Thanks to these efforts, future students would be more willing to enroll in higher education institutions and get a degree or certification. Young people must know that the time they will invest in college will help them reach middle-skills jobs and have decent and fulfilling lives.
Community colleges have faced more changes and challenges in the past decades, especially after the pandemic. They are witnessing drastic technological advances, automation, novel occupations, and traditional jobs mixing with tech-driven skills and competencies.
But as these institutions already struggled with various issues, such as aging facilities and lack of collaboration with employers, it is difficult to respond to these transformations and develop workforce-ready graduates.
The pace of innovation is faster than before, and not many businesses share how they respond to it with community colleges. Instead, they tend to rely on automation and expand their job requirements, leaving community colleges behind and struggling to keep up the pace.
Yet, these higher education institutions can’t navigate and overcome these challenges alone.
They need employers’ help and equal engagement to understand the skills and capabilities their students should possess. Moreover, the mutual effort would ensure community colleges are designing programs that align with the market demand and that they can stay ahead of the emerging changes.