Community Colleges Create a Pipeline of Quality Job Candidates for Employers

Written by Brianna Rockenstire on May 26, 2021


Roles and Perceptions of Community Colleges   

Most people think of a community college as an economical alternative to more expensive four-year universities. It is where a student can complete two years of undergraduate class requirements and attain an associate degree without accruing massive loan debt. Because of significantly lower tuition costs, community colleges are also widely praised for providing lower-income students greater access to higher education. But there is an aspect of a community college’s charter that is not as widely known, which is its role as a driver of regional economic and workforce development. That role has a significant impact on the way a community college operates, how it designs curriculum, how it prepares students for success, and how it provides value to the community and regional employers.  

The Mission to Impact Economic Growth 

The mission of a community college is multifaceted and includes an economic and workforce development component. That component tasks a college with impacting regional economic growth and competitiveness through industry-specific education and training that helps create a highly skilled workforce. Community colleges fulfill that aspect of their mission by graduating students with the academic education and skills that meet the workforce needs of business.  

Educational Consultant Diane K. Troyer, Ph.D., states, “The range of programs and services of community colleges put colleges at the center of their communities by providing an engine for economic and community development. The range of offerings from short-term skills and adult basic education/ESL to high-demand workforce programs and transfer programs fuels the development both of individuals and the community at large.” 

In the state of Washington, there are strong indicators that its statewide community college system is meeting that economic impact goal. According to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, “Each year, Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges, their students and their former students add $20.5 billion to the state’s economy. This economic growth translates into 321,549 jobs and about 5.1 percent of the gross state product. It all adds up to more opportunities and a stronger economy for the people of Washington state.”  

 Creating a Strong Workforce 

To realize the economic and workforce development aspect of their mission, community colleges cultivate long-term partnerships with employers and industry organizations, which helps them gain a thorough understanding of businesses’ most pressing workplace skills requirements. The colleges address those requirements by developing the relevant academic degree programs and curriculum. In addition to the academic programs, the colleges help meet businesses’ immediate needs by providing professional development and customized employee training programs that upskill their workforce. These not-for-credit courses and certificate programs are typically delivered by continuing education and corporate training divisions —which is sometimes referred to as contract training. It is often the role of staff from these two not-for-credit programs to help the college establish a dynamic presence within the business community; the staff acts as front-line players who gather industry intelligence and have a crucial role in keeping the entire college, including the academic programs, apprised of the latest industry trends and advances. Because of the community colleges’ collaboration with industry, they can develop and deliver the urgently needed academic and professional development programs in leadership development, project management, software development and other technical areas. And because those programs are often taught by industry experts who provide a mix of real-world experience, foundational skills, and hands-on IT work, students are job-ready upon completion. They are prepared to have successful careers as software and application developers, cybersecurity specialists, data analysts, and technical program managers. The perception of a community college’s role as just a “trade school” is truly outdated.  

Responsive and Agile Industry Partners 

Because of the community colleges’ collaborative partnerships with employers, they excel at responding to the crucial skills gaps employers struggle to resolve by providing a combination of academic degrees, not-for-credit certificates, and professional development programs. In best-case scenarios, these programs become integrated, which enhances a college’s responsiveness and agility. In an article published by Inside Higher Ed titled “Workforce Development and an Opportunity for Change,” authors Jim Jacobs and Maria Cormier note, “Increasing efforts to integrate credit and noncredit workforce training programs further allow colleges to adapt to fluctuating labor market demands with innovative programs that better reflect employers’ shifting needs. While it may take new credit programs and courses at least two years to receive approval and accreditation, colleges often have more flexibility in creating noncredit programs and employer certificates.” To further aid their agility, community colleges can tap into vast resources composed of workplace-specific curriculum and subject area experts to deliver the optimal educational solution designed to enhance workplace performance.  

Addressing the Workforce Development Needs of Washington State’s Dynamic IT Sector 

According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, the “State’s reputation as a global hub for information and communication technology (ICT) is well deserved. It is the birthplace of such legendary businesses as Microsoft, Amazon, F5 Networks, Zillow and Expedia and home to countless engineering offices for industry movers and shakers, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, Salesforce, Best Buy, Alibaba and eBay.”  

Statistics from the Department’s website show that tech workers make up 10.7% of the state’s total workforce, totaling more than 313,000 workers statewide. Additionally, the state leads the nation in the net percentage of new tech positions, with a gain of 7.6% last year. These tech sector workforce stats put many Washington state community colleges at the forefront of creating a pipeline of qualified job candidates for tech employers.  

Because household name tech companies grab so much attention, we must not overlook the fact that the IT skills gap is a problem faced by every business in the state. Both tech and non-tech companies struggle to find the right employees. According to data from the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), “The Vast Majority of IT Job Openings are outside the Tech Industry. IT openings in non-tech industries grew 65%, compared to 40% in tech.” What keeps hiring managers in all industry sectors up at night is the search for the right candidates with the right skills that enable them to quickly become productive team members. To meet that pressing need for quality job candidates, community colleges develop the academic programs and industry-recognized IT certificate programs that give students the knowledge and practical skills employers want.  

In fact, IT certificate programs are increasingly valued by employers. Candidates who hold high-value IT certifications are considered more job-ready than those who do not. According to Burning Glass Technologies’ 2017 report The Value of Industry Certifications in the Job Market, “IT certifications provide employers with additional assurances of candidates’ skills and capabilities.” 

Because several Washington state community colleges are in the middle of dynamic innovation zones, they are in a position to leverage their geographic advantage. Those colleges are surrounded by industry-leading companies that are at the cutting edge of technology and are constantly looking for solid local talent. Companies from a wide range of employers such as Amazon, Boeing, T-Mobile, Costco, REI, Symetra and Microsoft look to community colleges to provide them with a pipeline of qualified job candidates and upskilling opportunities including IT certifications. Examples of IT certificate programs offered by these colleges include Database Business Intelligence Developer, Software Test Engineer, CompTIA Cybersecurity Analyst and AWS Certification.  

Brett Greene, Founder & CEO, New Tech Northwest, says, “Many community colleges in our state are working in partnership with larger tech companies to create certification, apprenticeship, and degree programs tailored to teach the skills that are in the highest demand. By proactively educating students to step into jobs that employers are having a hard time filling, local community colleges have become a great resource for employers looking to fill IT positions.”   

Preparing Students for Success 

Because of the long-term partnerships that community colleges have created with industry, employers trust and depend on them to help create a pipeline of quality job candidates. Many community colleges have been serving their communities for decades. Because employers have invested time with the colleges, giving input and feedback on curriculum and training programs, they know the college is fully invested in their students’ success. And they know that this commitment by the college is the foundation of a relationship with their students that often spans the arc of their careers. They also know that when their employees return to the college for further professional development, including career-advancing certificates, the students’ workplace experience is used by the college as a feedback loop to improve programs and create new ones. The result of this partnership is that the employer and student look to the college as a resource for continuous learning and career advancement. The success of Washington state’s community college systems is reflected in a 2019 National Study by New America, a thinktank based in Washington, D.C. The study found that community colleges scored at or near the top, compared to other sectors, when respondents were asked whether they contribute to a strong work force and prepare people to be successful.  

According to the study, “… support remains strong for America’s public colleges and universities, especially for community colleges. Overall, 85 percent of Americans think that public community colleges are worth the cost, a similar finding to previous years. Over half (62 percent) believe community colleges run efficiently and spend money wisely … and 86 percent think these institutions contribute to a strong American workforce.” 

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About the Washington State Community College System  

The Washington State Community College System comprises 34 schools across the state, serving approximately 337,000 students who train for the workforce, prepare to transfer to a university, gain basic math and English skills, or pursue continuing education. The Washington state system, considered among the strongest in the country, is often cited for its excellence: In 2013, Walla Walla Community College won the Aspen Institute Prize for Excellence in community colleges, and Pierce College recently won the Leah Meyer Austin Award for making significant changes to the way it approaches education. 

Learn more about the Washington State Community College System. 

About the Center of Excellence for Information & Computing Technology 

Washington’s 11 Centers of Excellence serve as statewide liaisons to business, industry, labor, and the state’s education systems for the purpose of creating a highly skilled and readily available workforce critical to the success of the industries driving the state’s economy. Each Center focuses on a targeted industry that drives the state’s economy and is built upon a reputation for fast, flexible, quality education and training programs.