Beyond a Living Wage
This is the second article in a monthly series examining how area colleges and universities are partnering with local businesses, workforce-development bodies, and other organizations to address professional-development needs in the region. One college will be featured each month.
In explaining why Greenfield Community College is an ideal fit for the Community College Workforce Transformation & Implementation cohort, Kristin Cole, vice president of Workforce Development at GCC, pointed to a series of criteria that New America — the national public-policy think tank that launched the program — considers in judging an effective workforce program.
“Number one is labor-market outcome. Programs should link to high-quality jobs that provide at least a living wage,” she told BusinessWest. “And that’s what we ask, too. Is this preparing someone for a job that builds into a career with a sustaining wage? If the answer is no, that’s not the kind of program we want to build here. We’re creating programs to be a bridge to financial stability.”
GCC is one of just 15 community colleges in the U.S. — and the only institution in New England — chosen to participate in the cohort by New America. The selection gives GCC’s Workforce Development office unique access to best practices, tools, research, and experts to implement innovations in workforce equity.
“Is this preparing someone for a job that builds into a career with a sustaining wage? If the answer is no, that’s not the kind of program we want to build here.”
“We’re honored to have been selected to join this impressive cohort. Our inclusion means a lot to our own equity efforts at GCC but means even more to the region, as GCC can become a leader in building a more equitable workforce throughout Franklin and Hampshire counties,” Cole explained. “Working closely with regional employers and community partners like the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board, GCC is laser-focused on accelerating the development of high-quality and affordable workforce-training programs with credentials that will lead to quality jobs and careers for all members of our community.”
The work, which will take place over the next 18 months, will assist GCC in implementing policies to better align workforce and economic development, modernize college-wide data infrastructure, and diversify the financing of workforce programs to better serve the residents and employers of Franklin and Hampshire counties, Cole noted — goals that line up with New America’s own intentions for the program.
Capacity, Data, and Funding
According to the think tank, the cohort’s first focus area is about building the capacity of colleges to meet the current economic demand in their communities while also contributing to economic development and emerging jobs in their regions. At many colleges, it notes, workforce programs are distributed across the college, and not all colleges have a senior leader with oversight over all those programs who can develop a strategic vision for economic development and align workforce programs with the needs of the community.
Some colleges, therefore, need to build out staffing models and structures, including workforce advisory boards, for broader engagement with community partners. Many colleges cite a need to grow partnerships with employers, local and federal government agencies, community-based organizations, and other entities that can provide work-based learning opportunities and job placements for students and/or funding to develop and expand in-demand programs.
Many colleges, New America notes, are focused on how their programs can better serve the economic needs of their students and communities. Some want to create new-short term credentials, and others want to expand apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships. Others want to create more seamlessness across programs, especially allowing students to ‘stack’ programs so students who complete non-credit programs can continue in for-credit programs without starting from square one.
“We really engage our employer partners up here,” Cole said, also praising the connecting work of the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board. “We want our learners to know that the first credential is a launching pad; it’s not the final destination. We’ll continue to help them add licensures to their résumé so their income levels will rise. New America has been focused on this work for a long time. How do we plan and deliver high-quality workforce-development programs at community colleges across the nation?”
New America’s second focus area is data — specifically, what data colleges need to understand the labor market and program outcomes, how colleges can collect this data, and how they can use it to launch programs and evaluate existing ones.
Some colleges still need to update their data systems and employ more sophisticated tools to better store and analyze their data, the organization notes. Most colleges need to gather more labor-market information, like what training is needed by employers, and they have questions about what data sources are accurate and up-to-date. They also need to better track program completion rates and information about graduates’ job placements and salaries.
The last focus area is financing: how to pay for the startup and operation of high-quality workforce programs.
“The colleges in our cohort are very interested in finding new funding streams, including state and federal funds, to diversify the financing of their workforce programs,” New America notes. “Many colleges across the country knit together many funding sources, from grant funding to state operational funding to student fees, to make these programs work, and they are very interested in finding new sources of revenue to improve their capacity and support services for students.”
It notes that the 15 cohort colleges would also like additional help to explain the value and return on investment of these programs to external audiences so they are more likely to invest in workforce programs. “Communicating how these programs have a substantial impact on the lives of graduates and the communities where they live is a vital part of creating sustainable funding models. Our colleges are particularly interested in communicating to state and federal policymakers and foundations or individuals who might donate to the college. We will also cover how to communicate the ROI to employers to leverage both in-kind and financial donations to the programs they benefit from.”
Cole said GCC has been committed to helping students succeed in ways that will lead to sustainable wages and promising careers, not just a degree or certificate, and part of that has been recognizing barriers to success.
Fifteen months ago, the college received a $735,000 state grant allowing it to offer free workforce-training programs, but also provide critical wraparound supports to learners dealing with barriers like transportation, clothing, and other basic needs.
“Our resource navigators meet with students to identify barriers that threaten their ability to persist and proceed and learn. Now we’re able to provide resources directly to students — gift cards, groceries, gas, laptops from the lending library, hotspots for homework, work clothing, like scrubs, when appropriate. We have a really strong relationship with our community partners for additional support needs.
“This direct support has been a game changer for building trust and confidence with learners,” she went on. “They know GCC is here to support them through finding sustainable employment and beyond.”
In introducing the Community College Workforce Transformation & Implementation program, New America points out that artificial intelligence is poised to disrupt work as we know it, with many jobs expected to be automated over the coming years. At the same time, the American labor market is slowing, particularly for Black Americans, with rising interest rates meant to rein in inflation.
“American workers face an uncertain future,” it notes. “To address these challenges, we need a system that supports people retraining for the jobs that are available and can sustain a family. That’s where community-college workforce programs come in.”
The 15 colleges in the initial cohort represent 12 states and a mix of rural, suburban, and urban communities. They collectively educate over 181,000 students, with the smallest (like GCC) serving around 2,000 students and the largest more than 34,000. Four of the colleges are Hispanic-serving institutions.
“The innovations that these colleges want to implement provide a window into how community colleges across the country are looking to strengthen workforce programs,” New America notes.
GCC President Michelle Schutt added that “being selected into the Community College Workforce Transformation & Implementation cohort with New America is a momentous accomplishment for Greenfield Community College. Intentional focus on workforce equitability will benefit the entire Pioneer Valley.”