Designing for the Workforce Future: Reflections on Implications for Community Colleges

Achieving the Dream President and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout reflects on the The Workforce of the Future panel she participated on at the 2018 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference.

I recently presented at the Educause conference on a panel on the future of work. Participation on the panel offered me a rare opportunity to spend some time reading about the future workplace and to think about what that future means for the future design of our community colleges.

I believe our sector must consider the following four components as integrated and fundamental to our work as we design, develop and improve our workforce development strategies.

One: We must continue to move more of our students to associate degree completion and consider this work as part of our workforce development strategy.

While our sector sometimes devalues our own associate degrees, especially those in transfer areas, recent research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce titled “Three Education Pathways to Good Jobs” notes that the associate degree is the most efficient option for upskilling noting significant earnings differences between college drop outs (college credits, no degree) and those with AA degrees.

Two: We must own the bachelor’s degree completion of our graduates and non-graduates as part of our sector’s success metrics. This requires us to work with our university partners to improve the bachelor’s degree achievement rates of community college transfer students.

In the same Georgetown University report, it is noted that the bachelor’s degree remains the “premier” pathway to economic mobility. 75 percent of BA jobs are good jobs. To support the economic mobility of our graduates, community colleges can no longer accept the low completion rates of community college students at our transfer institutions. As a sector, we must make bachelor’s degree completion a measure of our success and, thus, ensure that our transfer pathways lead into a four-year college or university that values and supports community college student transfer success.

As a sector, we have counted students who transfer out of our colleges without associate degrees in our success rates. This metric may be a progress metric, but the students who fare worse, from an economic perspective, are those who accumulate credits at community colleges and upon transfer but secure no degree or credential from either institution while also often building debt.

Three: We must develop comprehensive reskilling strategies and think more dynamically about what lifelong learning looks like.

Depending on which research report you read, by 2030 as many as 30 percent of current jobs will be disrupted by technology. Yet, with adequate reskilling, 95 percent of the workers at-risk for displacement can be reskilled into good quality, higher wage work. Without reskilling, 16 percent of these workers will have no matches for a job transition. And the majority of those without matches are women.

Our colleges are focused on the student experience primarily defined from intake to completion. We need new models that enable each person to reskill as their occupational and personal contexts shift. This requires a new view of the student/worker education/training life cycle and a commitment to staying connected with alumni and learners with credits and no credential supporting them with a continuum of career coaching supports, competency acquisition recognized by micro-credentials, and wrap around supports that incentivize completion.

We should position our colleges as hubs for lifelong reskilling. We can learn and borrow from the Sixty Year Curriculum (60YC) project in Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education to design lifelong pathways to financial security for our students, who upon graduation, are more likely than any other sector to stay in our communities and, thus, require reskilling and possibly a life cycle of post-secondary credentials to support their movement through multiple careers over a span of as many as six decades.

Four: We must innovate and take a market leading position in the middle skills jobs space.

Back to the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce report. Good jobs in the non-bachelor’s degree economy are in the middle skills job category which accounts for 24 percent of good jobs in the United States. The associate degree is one credential that earns graduates middle skill jobs. Yet, there is a growing space for an array of other credentials and certifications, that would be recognized by employers, to build a pipeline of talent in technical jobs across industries like transportation, construction, utilities, financial services, health care, and information technology.

This is a space ripe for innovative work. Traditional comprehensive community colleges (that are mostly transfer driven) have underdeveloped ability in this space but they are being called on to develop new approaches to apprenticeship, certificate design, micro credentialing and badging.

“Once you understand the world of work, you understand the world of learning,” said New America’s Mary Alice McCarthy. Developing a workforce strategy that integrates these four components will also require community colleges to adopt a new mindset, one that is connected to the world of work.


“The 60 Year Curriculum: Developing New Educational Models to Serve the Agile Labor Market,”, October 18, 2018.

“What Will Be Important in the Learn and Work Ecosystem in 2030? How do we Prepare?”, October 8, 2018.

“Credentialing Evolves as Demand Grows for Middle Skills Jobs,”Inside Higher Education, October 17, 2018.

Carnevale, A., Strohl, J., Ridley, N. & Gulish, A. “Three Educational Pathways to Good Jobs,” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2018.

Cann, Oliver. “Reskilling Revolution Needed for the Millions of Jobs at Risk Due to Technological Disruption,” World Economic Forum, 2018.

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