How Community Colleges Can Close The Skills Gap

While we read much about an employment shortage, we hear relatively little about a more fundamental and insidious challenge to our country's prosperity: the skills gap.
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While we read much about an employment shortage, we hear relatively little about a more fundamental and insidious challenge to our country's prosperity: the skills gap. In Chicago, where the jobless rate is 9 percent, more than 100,000 positions remain unfilled -- many of them gateways to the middle class. Across the country, there were more than 3.6 million job openings at the start of June, according to the Labor Department, many of them in fields increasingly central to our economy such as healthcare and information technology.

Why are jobs going unfilled while people remain out of work? The answer, say some employers: applicants simply don't have the skills to get these jobs. The skills gap is made even worse by an information gap, as many people don't even realize the jobs that are available nor the skills required to succeed in them.

The solution to the skills to jobs mismatch and information gap ultimately lies in education. We must ensure Americans have the skills and information to succeed in the jobs of today and tomorrow. As the largest and most affordable sector of the country's higher education system, community colleges are uniquely positioned for this effort.

Here in Chicago, we have embraced this challenge. Last December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and I launched College to Careers at the City Colleges of Chicago, Illinois' largest community college system serving 120,000 students annually. The overarching goal of College to Careers is simple: create top-notch occupational programs that provide students relevant skills and transferable credits that prepare them for 21st century careers.

College to Careers has attracted major corporate partners, from UPS to United Airlines, from Walgreen to CVS, who are eager to help City Colleges develop what we call "credentials of economic value," meaning that students earn credentials that have real value to both employers and 4-year colleges. Seems like common sense, and it is. For years, community colleges have been a gateway to education for all comers. But we must also focus on the success of each student once they join our system. This means ensuring that they complete their degree, and that they have the skills and knowledge to enter the workforce or continue their education.

Before launching College to Careers, we identified the sectors with the greatest job growth in the next decade like healthcare, transportation, distribution and logistics (TDL), business, information technology, culinary/hospitality and manufacturing. We have started with a focus on healthcare and TDL because together these two industries are forecasted to have 84,000 and 110,000 local job openings, respectively, over the next decade.

Through College to Careers, industry-leading companies work collaboratively with our faculty and staff to design the curriculum and facilities needed to train students for success. They provide City Colleges' students with access to teacher-practitioners, internships and the latest technologies, as well as a first pass at job interviews. Why are our partners investing their time and resources? They clearly realize that the quality of their future is tied to the quality of America's workforce, and therefore, our students' success.

A key premise of College to Careers is that all City Colleges' degrees and credentials should put students on the pathway to success. We are creating a system of stackable credentials, where each certificate or degree is designed to both stand on its own and serve as a gateway to a more advanced one so that students can easily continue to grow their skills. Every degree or credential becomes an opportunity for advancement and there are no dead ends.

Still in the early stages, the effort is already paying off for both partners and students. For example, College to Careers partner Allscripts, a global provider of electronic records and information systems to hospitals and physicians, hired 48 City Colleges' graduates this summer. The first six months of the new hires' salaries will be supported through a $2-million fund recently announced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to encourage employment of CCC graduates in growing sectors.

It is often said that education is the foundation of our economy and the key to our nation's future. That's true -- but if we are to close America's skills gap and end the jobs crisis, our educational system must become as dynamic as our economy. The stakes are too high to settle for the status quo.