Photo by Karen Pearlman
Cuyamaca College instructor Diane Citrowske (right) looks over a pamphlet with Ornamental Horticulture student Tricia Daley at Cuyamaca College.

Photo by Karen Pearlman Cuyamaca College instructor Diane Citrowske (right) looks over a pamphlet with Ornamental Horticulture student Tricia Daley at Cuyamaca College.

By the numbers alone, the reach of California’s community colleges is substantial.

The 116 community colleges in 73 districts throughout the state annually educate 2.1 million students who take courses for credit, and another 250,000 more who attend non-credit classes. Today, one in every four community college students in the U.S. are enrolled in a California community college.

While many students take classes in order to get an associate degree to move on to the four-year university system, California community colleges also provide opportunities for lifelong learning, and the institutions are big players in training the workforce that helps sustain the state’s robust economy.

The link between once stigmatized community colleges and the future success of the California workforce is strong – and community college administrators and educators are working to make it even stronger.


Linda Kurokawa Executive Director of Community Education & Workforce Development Mira Costa College


Frank Pancucci Director of Workforce Development San Diego Workforce Partnership

“Historically, community colleges used to be known as ‘junior colleges,’ an extension of the high school experience,” said Linda Kurokawa, executive director of Community Education and Workforce Development at MiraCosta College in Carlsbad.

“Our community colleges have grown up not just in name as they have become ‘community colleges.’ They are our community cornerstones,” Kurokawa added. “The role that community colleges play in our new economy is not just about education. It takes skills training, and we are uniquely set up and focused on the bulk of positions in the work world where they do not (look for a) bachelor’s or master’s degree. We play a vital role in that.”

Workforce Partnership has Starring Role

Frank Pancucci is the director of workforce development at San Diego Workforce Partnership, a leader in innovative workforce solutions that funds training programs so job seekers are better able to develop the skills and knowledge they need for in-demand careers.

The group also works closely with businesses and oversees programs like Expanded Subsidized Employment, which among other things, provides participating companies with lists of applicants who match specific employment needs.

Pancucci said SD Workforce Partnership is currently collaborating with the San Diego Community College District to pair community college students with future opportunities through its resources. “We kind of need each other,” Pancucci said.

Pancucci said that he is working with Amertah Perman, dean of career education and workforce development for the district, on plans that will be beneficial to the colleges under the San Diego Community College District umbrella and the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

The San Diego Community College District includes San Diego City, Mesa and Miramar colleges, and seven campuses making up the San Diego College of Continuing Education. The district serves about 100,000 students annually.

Those plans include still-to-be-determined co-locating a Workforce Partnership presence at the institutions so that students will have better and faster access to job placement assistance. Pancucci said plans could include putting a kiosk on site where a student could sit down and connect with a Workforce Partnership person virtually. The San Diego Workforce Partnership also will continue to show up at existing community college events like career fairs but could add other events in the future.

“Our goals are to help job seekers who are underemployed or unemployed gain economic mobility,” Pancucci said. “We’re focused on training a workforce that is competitive for local businesses in San Diego. We see ourselves as a connector so that the economy is thriving in San Diego.”

Adding $128B to Golden State Incomes

A January 2022 report from California Community Colleges called “The Economic Value of the California Community College System” said that the accumulated impact of former students currently employed in the California workforce amounted to $109 billion in added income for the state economy.

The alumni impact is equivalent to supporting 1.3 million jobs, according to the report, which studied fiscal year 2018-19 and assesses the impact of the college system on the state economy.

The analysis also shows that in that same fiscal year, between operations, construction and student spending of the state’s community colleges, together with the enhanced productivity of their alumni, generated $128.2 billion in added income for the California economy.

That is equal to nearly 4.2 percent of the total gross state product of California, supporting 1.5 million jobs. The report also gave another perspective – that one out of every 16 jobs in California is supported by the activities of community colleges and their students.


Larry McLemore Dean of Career Education Cuyamaca College

Creating Hands-On, Engaging Content

That is no surprise to Larry McLemore, dean of career and technical education at Cuyamaca College in East County. Cuyamaca serves about 9,000 students at its Rancho San Diego campus.

Cuyamaca is the sister school of Grossmont College in El Cajon, which serves about 18,000 students, and both campuses are under the auspices of the Grossmont Cuyamaca Community College District.

McLemore finished a 30-year career in the automotive collision repair industry in Kansas and moved to California to oversee courses in automotive technology, water studies, computer information systems, graphic design, child development, computer aided design and drafting technology, ornamental horticulture and business and professional studies at Cuyamaca.

The courses under McLemore’s watch offer more hands-on and engaging content, “not just lecture and learn,” he said. With more individualized and immersive courses, students have deeper retention and better chances to complete their studies because they are engaged in the process.

McLemore said the traditional academic model of the four-year degree isn’t always the best fit and that showing students “the broader vision” in the beginning of their post-high school life helps them self-direct toward their passions.

“Work-based learning and career tech education is teaching people with the end in mind,” he said. “Kids don’t always know what they want to be, what they want to do. But work-based learning takes them into the educational pathway and helps them navigate.”

He said people can leave his survey program with a certificate and quickly move into a six-figure salary upon entering the labor force because it is understaffed and greatly in need.

McLemore said one of the reasons he moved to California was because of its Strong Workforce Program.

The Strong Workforce Program was created in 2016 by the state legislature to develop more workforce opportunity and lift low-wage workers into living-wage jobs in California. Seeking to create one million more middle-skill workers, the program adds a new annual recurring investment of $248 million to spur career technical education in the workforce development system of the state’s community colleges.

With more than 200 programs crafted in collaboration with business and labor, and taught be industry professionals, the state community college system is the largest provider of workforce training in the world.

Alternative Ways to Learn

Those interested in a quicker path to the workplace often seek classes that don’t offer credit but instead allow them to concentrate on learning new job skills. Sometimes a non-credit course allows students to receive higher wages in their current jobs because of increased skill level.

“In the best of all worlds, we don’t step on each other’s toes, we enhance the opportunities,” said MiraCosta’s Kurokawa, who oversees the college’s non-credit programs, about credit vs. non-credit courses that community colleges offer.

MiraCosta offers a variety of works skills and certificate training, in courses as varied as craft brewing technician, financial planning analyst, biomedical equipment technician, massage therapist, electronic assembly, S.C.U.B.A. diving instructor program, Real Estate sales license program, solar photovoltaics cell installer, welding and unmanned systems (also known as drones).

“We are able to educate students quickly and well,” she said. “We allow for more flexibility, spontaneity and accelerated learning possibilities,” Kurokawa said. “We have an exceptional program using instructors who are experts in their fields. We hire people who have a lot of industry experience and are good at teaching. So our programs are fast-paced, intensive and very hands-on.”

Kurokawa said many students are able to walk into paid internships or get jobs right after taking the non-credit classes, typically after three to five months of studies. She also said there is a 98 percent retention rate.

“Our students don’t drop out,” she said. “When they know that they’re doing accelerated work, the light is at the end of the tunnel.”

‘Ton’ of Social Change

McLemore said that the COVID-19 pandemic has created “a ton of social change,” and that now more than ever before, “people view workforce and skilled labor force in a very different way than they used to.”

While parents and families of high school students are still being directed to universities to get four-year degrees, there is great satisfaction for many in career technical education.

“At the end of the day, you can only stay in school for so long,” McLemore said. “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to do something. That’s why career ed focuses on things at the beginning. Community colleges are working toward building curriculum that meets you where you’re at.”

Changing the view of education from “a scary negative place to be because you’re being told what you are going to be” versus entering the education experience “and being asked what you want to study, asked what you want to do” is where workforce development shines, McLemore said. “We are engaging students in what’s possible, which is their decision, not ours.”