Well-funded and forward-looking community colleges are key to a state's competitive future and might be the ultimate hedge against structural unemployment. The most successful states are scaling innovative training and education programs at their community colleges in partnership with local governments and employers. Unfortunately, state and local funding for community colleges is declining nationwide. A significant majority of states are failing to recognize their long-term importance.
Strong community college programs can ensure that a state actually has the skilled workers trained for the jobs of the future. Just as importantly, these local educational institutions attract new businesses and retain changing industries with a sustainable pipeline of skilled workers.
A skilled workforce must be present for any industry or business to thrive. Too many businesses today are unable to fill open, well-paying jobs. In fact, there are 2 million job openings in manufacturing alone that can't be filled because employers can't find workers with the skills to do them. IT jobs across sectors and many health-care positions also remain unfilled due to anemic talent pools.
This skills gap will continue to grow at an unprecedented pace as advances in technology and other structural factors dramatically impact the labor demands of the U.S. economy. Workers and employers must continuously adapt. Mid-career retraining will be a fact of life for most workers. It won't just be about how much states spend on education, but how much they spend on tailored training and retraining programs to develop a sustainable pipeline of adaptable workers.
The time to embrace this truth is upon us. Some states, such as the extreme example of Arizona — which completely eliminated community college funding from its budget two years ago — are responsible for what has been a big decrease in funding for two-year colleges. Other states are leading the way.
Tennessee, for example, offers all Tennessee residents free tuition to any of its two-year community or technical colleges through its Tennessee Promise program. Similar state and regional "college promise" programs are popping up across the country, but more is needed.
In New York, Monroe Community College has a plan to train thousands of workers for the jobs of the future, using labor data to determine where jobs in the region will be and then create training programs tailored to those precise needs.
This is not just about jobs in manufacturing
It isn't just manufacturing giants that stand to benefit from proactive partnerships with community colleges. Smaller companies, and those in rapidly expanding industries such as green energy and health-care IT, have everything to gain by aligning their interests with local community colleges.
Several smaller, competing sheet metal companies in Minneapolis, Minnesota, recently funded a program at the local Anoka Community College because they couldn't find the workers with the skills they all needed. Now an entire local industry has a pipeline of talent, and workers know they can be reskilled to do jobs in their community.
Colorado is another great example of state government, community colleges and local corporations working together to proactively address workforce changes. Colorado's statewide community college system is among the leaders in the idea of sector partnerships, creating the framework for industry-driven alignment across economic development, workforce development and education.
At WorkingNation we have found that when a local government-employer-educator relationship occurs to address a skills gap, great things can result in that community. Employers are the best source of real-time data on local, in-demand occupations. They have the ability — and we believe the responsibility — to partner with local community colleges to create and maintain a healthy talent pool.
The next step will be to scale and implement these programs in every state, at every community college, for every industry across the country.
The states that do this now will have more successful businesses and more successful workers.