Our nation was experiencing critical workforce shortages before COVID-19, and large numbers of workers in low-wage jobs were struggling to improve their financial outcomes. According to The Conference Board Labor Shortage Solutions Survey, 85% of companies in “mostly blue-collar industries” reported recruiting difficulties, and 64% of companies in “mostly white-collar industries.” COVID-19 has made this worse, signalling the need for greater collaboration between higher education institutions and employers focused on building workforce pipelines to support entire communities becoming skilled and economically self-sufficient.
As COVID-19 left thousands of residents unemployed in Orlando, Valencia College redoubled existing successful strategies⸺revolutionizing workforce training in Florida’s Osceola and Orange Counties⸺coordinating with local governments to fast-track reeducation. In Osceola County, Valencia focused on industries facing labor shortages to guarantee placement upon graduation, such as commercial truck driving, advanced manufacturing, electronic board assembly, and construction trades. In Orange County, the government’s CareerSource initiative committed $7 million in CARES Act funding providing unemployed residents with career counseling, job-seeking assistance, and training, including Valencia College’s Accelerated Skills Training (AST) Program.
Success requires collaboration among local businesses, government, and skilled crafts programs to streamline opportunities for both employers and workers. Valencia’s AST programs last 4–18 weeks and offer start times throughout the year, affording workers a life-changing career opportunity in as little as one month and a steady stream of qualified workers locally and nationally. Additionally, scholarship programs support essential expenses like housing and groceries, enabling students to focus on program completion. As a result timelines are accelerated for all parties.
Valencia goes beyond tailoring programs just to match industry needs and works with specific businesses to design a laser-focused curriculum to skill future workers. One example is the collaboration with the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) and a national industry training provider for a new program to train electrical powerline technicians. Through this collaboration, OUC gains access to much-needed skilled workers, and students receive job training, instruction in financial literacy, crucial “soft skills” like resume-building and interview preparation, and access to lucrative careers, with starting wages between $21-$27 per hour. The benefits of Valencia’s practices are reflected in outcomes: 95% of AST students complete the program, and 81% of graduates secure jobs immediately.
Long-form training models of collaboration in practice include The National Rural Water Association (NRWA)’s national registered apprenticeship program that addresses workforce shortages by partnering with California State University, Sacramento to support dual enrollment and credential attainment. Likewise, the Phoenix, AZ Job Corps Center partners with Maricopa Community Colleges to grant academic credentials while major employers like CVS Health see the Center as a steady recruitment and training resource.
Now is the time to foster resilience, equity, and economic mobility in our communities by rethinking the collaboration among communities, education systems, and employers. As demonstrated by these successes, businesses should consider community colleges as viable partners to grow a steady pool of skilled workers through efficient and effective job training. These partnerships can transform the nation’s workforce, but require intentional collaboration to support everyone’s needs.
About the Authors
Edna Primrose is the Assistant Director of Policy for the Education and Society Program at the Aspen Institute. In this role, she leads programs that seek to address poverty in America by fostering connections across education, economic and social mobility, and equity. Prior to joining Aspen, Primrose served as Assistant Administrator for Water and Environmental Programs and Chief Operating Officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She also served as National Director for the U.S. Department of Labor's Job Corps Program and directed apprenticeship initiatives at the International Union of Operating Engineers.
Dr. Sanford “Sandy” Shugart has served since 2000 as the fourth president of Valencia College in greater Orlando, Florida. As winner of the first Aspen Prize for Excellence, Valencia College is one of the most celebrated community colleges in America. Serving over 70,000 students per year, the college is known for high rates of graduation, transfer and job placement, and has become something of a national laboratory for best practices in learning-centered education.