long-term unemployment

America's (quality) jobs creator: Community colleges

April 14, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

To prep the next generation of workers, getting the right skills is critical. And young people don't have to travel very far to get the training they need.

By Thomas A. Kochan

The start to a great career may be at your community college.

The start to a great career may be at your community college.

FORTUNE -- Some Massachusetts Institute of Technology MBA students were blown away by the stories they recently heard from graduates of a local community college:

One young graduate told how he dropped out of high school and drifted for a couple years before becoming an Army Ranger and then, with the help of the GI Bill, and good army counselors, got his "second chance" at school by enrolling in the community college. He graduated and is pursuing a four-year college degree.

Then there was the young immigrant who came to the U.S. expecting to find unlimited opportunity but instead could only find a job in a restaurant kitchen where he was constantly harassed and cheated out of his wages. But instead of retreating back home, he enrolled in the community college because "it was cheap" and available. Now he is also a successful graduate with marketable skills and able to continue his education in a four-year college.

Then one of the MBAs said she too had dropped out of high school to pursue her considerable talents as a musician. But when she lost interest in music as a career, a good community college and math teacher/mentor were her bridge to becoming a successful entrepreneur and eventually gaining entry into the MBA program.

These stories are not just nice anecdotes. They signal a critical path forward in addressing the jobs and skills, challenges and opportunities facing young people across the country today. While some of the directions that define this path have been well-documented, the actual route taken by four critical policy drivers -- government, business, education, and labor -- has been inadequate, uncoordinated, or both. Neither America's young people nor its economy can any longer afford such failure.

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But three factors are now coming together in a way that may finally force real progress toward addressing the jobs crisis facing America's next generation of workers.

First, some employers, particularly from small to medium-sized firms, complain they can't find workers with the right skills needed to fill some of their technical jobs. Then we have a large pool of underemployed young people, such as those highlighted in the above stories, who are eager to do whatever is needed to shift directions and learn the skills employers need. Finally, this nation has a rich infrastructure of community colleges, vocational schools, and universities available to help match these two groups with each other.

In his 2014 State of the Union speech, President Obama called for an "across-the-board reform of America's training programs." And, he added, "We know how to do it."

He's right. Regional and industry-specific programs already in place around the country provide successful models. In a December 2012 Harvard Business Review article on "Who Can Fix the Middle-Skills Gap?" my colleagues and I summarized the key ingredients that research on these programs has shown to be essential to their success:

  • Multiple employers in a region or industry sector cooperate with one another and with educational and labor institutions to jointly design and fund initiatives to train and hire graduates.
  • Classroom education is integrated with opportunities to apply new concepts and skills in on-the-job settings, an approach proven to be the way adults learn best.
  • Education and training focuses on offering workers career pathways, not just skills for initial jobs.

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Effective programs take a variety of forms. Some, such as the highly successful Center for Energy Workforce Development, are joint union-management initiatives. Others, such as the NCBioImpact consortium in North Carolina, rely heavily on community colleges. Efforts such as MIT's Leaders for Global Operations are university-industry joint ventures.

But to move these proven models to a scale big enough to have a national impact will take leadership  and cooperation from all quarters -- government, business, labor, and education.

For starters, government must do a much better job of coordinating training programs that are not now connected to each other and often have different funding requirements. Rather than a hodgepodge of fiefdoms within the federal government, there must be coordination of the disparate programs controlled by the Departments of Defense, Education, Commerce, and Labor. Getting maximum gain for federal dollars can happen only if the U.S. president insists these departments follow the three funding criteria above.

For its part, business has to face its Lone Ranger problem. Right now, no individual employer wants to spend money training people who will be poached by their competitors. But the business community can better serve itself and young people by mobilizing peers in their region or industrial sector to share in the costs of educational programs and provide on-the-job opportunities for students/future employees to apply in practice what they learn in the classroom.

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The education establishment must also change its ways. Too often, academics teach what they know, rather than what's needed. And too often, educators resist responding to outsiders telling them what to teach. For universities eager to find a funding strategy to sustain their burgeoning online educational platforms and offerings, what better opportunity is there than working with industry leaders to develop course work that gives bright young workers a "second chance" at acquiring the specific skills employers say are in short supply? Such courses can teach not only basic STEM-like skills, but so-called soft skills such as leadership, teamwork, communications, and negotiations skills that are prerequisite to success in the modern workplace.

Finally, labor can do its part by expanding apprenticeships and joint union-management programs, such as proven ones in health care, utilities, hotels, and many manufacturing industries, to provide "life-long" learning and skills upgrading opportunities. Labor is often isolated, but it is an important resource for employers or educators willing to engage.

Alone, such efforts won't solve the jobs crisis but they would have two positive effects.

First, doing them in large scale would help significant numbers of young workers avoid the long-term income and career damage they are now experiencing by starting off in jobs that don't use their talents or provide pathways for upward mobility. Second, engaging education, business, labor, and government in these ways might just demonstrate the power of cooperation across these otherwise separated groups.

And then who knows what else they might be able to do together?  I will come back and suggest some other areas where their joint efforts could pay off. Stay tuned.

Thomas A. Kochan is a professor of industrial relations, work, and employment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. He is author of the book, Restoring the American Dream: A Working Families' Agenda for America.

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