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2013 Law & Public Policy, Commentaries

Closing Massachusetts’ skills gap

Farrell_smBy David H. Farrell. Download as PDF.  In late 2012, roughly 240,000 people were looking for work across Massachusetts, yet over 120,000 job openings remained unfilled. Too many of the Commonwealth’s workers lack the skills that are needed to fill the jobs that are available. The Patrick administration has recognized the need to fix this skills gap. More importantly, it has realized that community colleges are the way to close the gap and get people back to work. Recent reforms are a big step towards making this a reality.

Massachusetts has led the nation in transitioning to a knowledge-based economy. As a result though, traditional jobs are disappearing rapidly. Many of the positions now available are “middle-skills jobs” that require more than a high school diploma, but not necessarily a four-year degree. The gap between the needs of the knowledge-based economy and the educational attainment of the Commonwealth’s residents is growing every year. Soon, three out of every four job openings in Massachusetts will require the completion of some level of postsecondary education.

The Commonwealth’s community college system must do a better job to help Massachusetts’ residents prepare for these jobs. In the recent past, however, three major problems have stood in the way. First, there is a lack of coordination among the fifteen schools that comprise the state’s community college system. Second, community colleges and prospective employers lack a strong sense of partnership. And third, public investment in community colleges has declined substantially for nearly 20 years.

Governor Deval Patrick has proposed sweeping reforms to address these concerns and place community colleges at the center of the Commonwealth’s workforce development strategy. The FY2013 budget adopted a number of measures aimed at strengthening the Commonwealth’s fifteen community colleges and clarifying their mission. This is a great start toward closing the skills gap and achieving sustainable job creation and growth in the Commonwealth.

A top priority is improving alignment and coordination within the community college system. The state’s fifteen community colleges cannot be effective in closing the skills gap if they are pursuing fifteen different strategies. Therefore, these reforms are making key changes to the governance of community colleges. The curricula of the entire system will be standardized and its programming will be more concentrated. As a result, the community colleges will have a common focus and operate more as a single system, rather than as simply individual colleges based in the same state. Moreover, the overall mission of the community colleges is clarified: the system will focus on workforce development and training.

Community colleges will be encouraged to align their programs with the needs of local employers. Partnerships between employers and community colleges will provide customized workforce-training solutions for employers that need workers and ensure that students across the Commonwealth are being educated for jobs that are in high demand. Bunker Hill Community College’s Learn and Earn program, which combines classroom learning with paid work experience, has already seen success in this area by partnering with employers such as Raytheon, EMC, and State Street. By strengthening partnerships with employers, the students of today will attain the skills they will need to excel in the jobs of tomorrow.

The FY2013 budget also allocated more funding in order to advance these reforms. This new money will support standardization initiatives, the development of career specific curricula, and various scholarship and grant programs. It is important to note that these allocations are made in addition to the standard line-item appropriations that each of the fifteen community colleges receives from the Commonwealth every year. In addition, a new community college funding formula is being created that will tie appropriations more closely to workforce development goals and clearly defined student performance metrics.

Together, these reforms are an important step toward creating a more stream-lined, responsive, and adaptable education and training pipeline. This will help close the skills gap and achieve sustainable job creation and growth. These reforms should create a sense of confidence in the capacity of the community college system to accomplish the task at hand.

However, it is important to recognize that no single group alone can eliminate the skills gap. It is vital that the public and private sectors, including the government, community colleges, business leaders and employers, as well as individuals, work together to solve this common problem. Collaborative efforts are surely the way to meet the needs of today and tomorrow’s workforce.

Community colleges are crucial to the economic future of our Commonwealth and it is encouraging to see that the Patrick administration is so deeply committed to them. Several states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, have already succeeded in making their community colleges workforce and economic development engines to meet the needs of their knowledge-based economies. With these reforms, Massachusetts is well on its way to becoming the next.

David H. Farrell is a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School. He received his M.Sc. in International Relations from University College Dublin, Ireland and his B.A. in Government from Clark University. Prior to law school, he also served in the office of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Upon graduation, David intends to pursue a career in public policy.

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