Community colleges fill a crucial gap in workforce development by addressing several disruptive trends in STEM-related fields.

Workforce Blog: Opening Doors to Opportunity

Aug 3, 2021

by Chandrakant Patel

As classes resume this month at U.S. colleges and universities, the tens of thousands of freshmen just embarking on their mechanical engineering degrees are well poised for the jobs that await them upon graduation. Indeed, the employment picture for America’s newly minted engineers is—and almost always has been—relatively rosy.
 
However, those who employ technical workers have plenty to worry about. That’s because there simply aren’t enough skilled men and women with trade skills in physical sciences, life sciences, and information sciences to fill the estimated 3.4 million technical positions that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine estimate will be open by next year. These are trade skills garnered through two-year workforce development programs, such as associate of science, not necessarily four-year degree programs.
 
So much opportunity for rewarding, high-paying jobs, and so few trained, qualified people to fill them.

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My own path to a productive STEM career started at City College of San Francisco, where I earned an associate degree in engineering. While I went on to earn advanced degrees at the University of California, Berkeley and San Jose State University, many of my CCSF classmates found good jobs in Silicon Valley, just a short drive down the 101 freeway from the two-year community college.
 
In California and elsewhere, community colleges play a critical role in the public education ecosystem. All California community college students who meet the grade and credits requirements are guaranteed admission to the highly competitive University of California system. Because those first two years can be completed close to home, and at a substantial discount in terms of cost, community colleges open the door to a four-year or higher degree for thousands of students who, for a host of reasons often having to do with systemic inequities, might otherwise be denied the chance.
 
But community colleges are more than a stepping stone to a four-year degree. Technical training certificates and two-year degrees fill a crucial gap in workforce development, providing focused, often specialized training required by employers but not available in most high schools.

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Community colleges are uniquely positioned to address several disruptive trends in STEM-related fields, including the increasing velocity of technological advancement, which creates demand for skillsets that may not have existed just a few years ago. These agile institutions can respond to new methods of engineering, such as computer simulation and robotics, that are changing the way technical work is performed. And perhaps most important, community colleges can meet the urgent demand for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion across engineering.

There are more than 1,000 community colleges nationwide, most with very low academic and economic barriers to entry. They offer flexible schedules and a broad array of technical and vocational training choices. It’s hard to imagine a better solution than community colleges to open doors of opportunity to the millions of young workers who either weren’t aware of the opportunities available to them or could find no realistic way to access them.
 
Three things have to happen for today’s young people to recognize and pursue these opportunities. First, they must become aware of the job possibilities for those with training but without a BSE degree. Second, young people as well as older workers seeking a mid-career pivot need clear and realistic roadmaps for winning rewarding technical jobs. And third, young people need a professional community where they can access employment information, internships, advanced training, and mentors.

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For community colleges to meet the urgent needs of the marketplace and open doors of opportunity for the next generation, they will need faculty and courses that are focused on the most market-relevant curriculum. Many will need to step up their limited career advisory resources. And most will need to develop stronger relationships with private- and public-sector employers.
 
ASME is already working on this challenge, organizing a new initiative to create “Community College Engineering Pathways.” Those of us who employ nondegreed technical personnel and enjoy successful technical careers ourselves should applaud this effort.
 
Chandrakant Patel is chief engineer and senior fellow at HP, Inc. Through its support of the Community College Engineering Pathways initiative, the ASME Foundation is empowering next-generation engineers. Find out more and join us in this important work at www.asmefoundation.org.

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