Federal economists estimate that 2 million jobs go unfilled today as a result of skills, training and education gaps. The same is true in Pennsylvania. A report submitted last year by the Governor’s Manufacturing Advisory Council noted that the number of new workers entering the industry, coupled with the growth in manufacturing, has left a staggering gap of available skilled workers.
Simply put: Every decent-paying job today takes more skill and more education, but too many Americans are not ready.
Gone are the days when all that was required of a worker to succeed was to get a foot in the door and work hard. Today, while hard work is still important, postsecondary education is required and frequent retraining is necessary to stay current in one’s field. In fact, it is estimated that 1.5 million job vacancies in the country consist of jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.
For 50 years, the state’s 14 community colleges have served this exact niche. As open access institutions, community colleges are the best avenue to education and training, and given the appropriate resources, our institutions can be the solution to Pennsylvania’s skills gap.
But community colleges are keenly aware that filling the skills gap is an on-going – and growing – challenge. State budget constraints have compounded this challenge and are restricting what the colleges are able to provide. Like a small-town fire department straining to contain a big-city blaze, community colleges are struggling to handle the huge job thrust on them.
Many millennials – a diverse demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds who make up the largest share of community college students in the Delaware Valley – are looking to our schools to give them a fighting chance in a brutal economy
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, said in recent interviews class mobility and access are at stake. “If we don’t fully fund postsecondary education, we are destroying the social contract. Education is the key to the social contract. It wasn’t true in 1970. It is true now,” Carnevale said.
Now, more than ever, community colleges need a grass-roots movement willing to speak up for our students and promote the benefits of educational access. After years of being severely underfunded by the state, we are struggling to meet the demands of diverse students and rapidly changing industries. In addition, many veterans returning from overseas look to community colleges for retraining and re-employment.
Nevertheless, Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges remain committed to the task of educating a 21st century workforce and making significant contributions to the state’s economic recovery. We are already actively engaged in this enterprise across the Commonwealth, and given the appropriate resources, will gladly expand our efforts. Community colleges can have a significant impact in closing the skills gap and getting Pennsylvania back to work, but we need the state to be a supportive partner.
In addition to community colleges’ role in workforce training, we also offer the most affordable and accessible pathway to the baccalaureate. A recent study by the American Association of Community Colleges found that more than one-quarter of those who earn a bachelor’s degree began their college experience at a community college and transferred to a four-year institution along the way. Nearly half of bachelor’s degree recipients take at least one course at a community college.
Maintaining affordable access to community colleges, and ensuring they have the resources to train students for 21st century jobs, cannot and should not be sacrificed in the Governor’s 2013-14 state budget. Colleges need the communities they serve to speak up and let elected officials know that our graduates make Pennsylvania strong.
As Governor Corbett finalizes his proposed budget we ask him to consider what’s at stake. So much hinges on equipping community colleges with much needed resources: The future competitiveness of our state, the ability for our businesses to thrive and our students to become valuable workers. In the midst of a damaging skills-gap, a strategic investment into Pennsylvania’s community colleges is more important than ever.
Our state cannot afford to stand idly by as the skills gap continues to widen.
Stephen M. Curtis, President of Community College of Philadelphia
Karen A. Stout, President, Montgomery County Community College
Jerome S. Parker, President, Delaware County Community College
Stephanie Shanblatt, Ph.D President, Bucks County Community College