Addressing the Critical Need for Career Education to Enhance Economic Mobility

Two recent announcements, one from the nation’s largest retailer and the other from a highly respected California research and policy organization, underscore the need for ongoing career education for adult workers and the effectiveness of community colleges in creating pathways that enhance economic mobility.

Amazon made headlines when it announced it would spend $700 million to upgrade the career skills of a third of its workforce. The online commerce giant isn’t the only business that is working to meet the challenges and opportunities that automation and artificial intelligence present in today’s economy. Throughout the nation, employers are grappling with globalization and technological advances that are changing the world of work.

The Public Policy Institute of California weighed in at about the same time with a comprehensive research report that highlighted the potential of community colleges to significantly improve economic mobility as students build skills and acquire career education credentials for better jobs and higher wages in fields such as business, allied health, engineering and public safety.

Students who earn a career education certificate or degree at one of our 115 community colleges see significant wage gains, and the majority start earning middle-income wages within a year of earning the credential, according to the research. Overall, credential holders saw an 8% wage gain for someone who earned a short-term certificate, a 21% increase for a long-term certificate and a 32% bump for an associate degree.

To further increase economic outcomes for career education students, the report recommends that our college system enhance student advising and support services, increase access to high return credentials and work with employers collaboratively on pathway development. In other words, we need to meet students and employers where they are to build the bridge to greater social and economic prosperity for our state.

The California Community Colleges Vision for Success lays out goals for increasing the number of students who get jobs in their field of study, and we are making progress. Not only does this goal address the ability of the system to help the state meet future workforce needs, it also relates to how well colleges are serving students. An increase in this metric means colleges provide career education programs that prepare students for available jobs that increase their social mobility.

Part of meeting students and employers where they are requires online instruction and different pedagogical approaches, especially for adult workers who have no college credential and find themselves trapped in “go nowhere” jobs. These students are least likely to be able to attend college in person.

Calbright, the state’s new online community college, will start serving these types of learners in a competency based setting starting in October with programs linked to in-demand job opportunities identified by employers and organized labor partners.

This creates potential for students to build on short-term credentials offered through Calbright and later enroll in other community colleges to pursue longer term – and higher return – credentials and degrees. This online education ecosystem is made possible through investments in the startup college as well as recent grants to 70 community colleges to improve online career education pathways.

The future of work is upon us, and community colleges are playing critical roles in shaping better outcomes for students and employers.