San Diego City College was the first community college in the region, founded in 1914 with four instructors and 34 students. Since then, the now 10-member strong collective San Diego County and Imperial Valley community college system — with hundreds of instructors and thousands of students —has become a vital partner to the business community as the region’s largest provider of workforce training and education.
Today, community colleges are playing an increasingly crucial role in preparing today’s local students to step into increasingly diverse roles in tomorrow’s workforce.
Nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that associate degree jobs will grow by 11 percent from 2016 to 2026 — faster than the 7 percent average projected for all occupations — while bachelor’s degree jobs will grow by 10 percent. Locally, San Diego and Imperial Valley community colleges are preparing to handle an influx of students seeking more specialized training in a rapidly evolving job market.
Community colleges also benefit the county economy. Operations, construction and student spending of the colleges’ career and technical programs — together with the enhanced productivity of their alumni — generated $2.8 billion in added income for the county economy in the 2019-20 fiscal year, according to the San Diego & Imperial Counties Community Colleges Regional Consortium. The additional income created is equal to nearly 1.1% of the total gross regional product of San Diego County.
Daniel Enemark, chief economist at the San Diego Workforce Partnership, the local nonprofit that funds training programs that help job seekers meet the needs of employers in the county, said that the role community colleges play cannot be overstated and said the institutions “provide an incredible deal.”
“They’re the largest workforce development institution in the region, and while we (SDWP and partners) play an essential role in workforce development, the work that community colleges do? There’s no comparison,” Enemark said. “What they do is absolutely essential to the region.”
Community colleges are where thousands current and future members of the workforce are trained, and while some gaps have closed, there remains some disconnect from the business community, local leaders say.
Community colleges need more buy-in from area employers – business owners who would do well to invest in these “major pipelines at their doorstep,” said Amertah Perman, dean of career education and workforce development with the San Diego Community College District.
Perman referred to a report published by Harvard Business School in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges that shows a lack of connection and collaboration for workforce development between community colleges and business and industry.
The report says that “businesses complain they cannot find the talent they need and turn to automation, outsourcing, offshoring and contingent labor to access skills,” and that “students lose faith in the promise of accessible post-secondary education, leading them to pursue jobs with limited career prospects.”
The report also says that “educators sense the inadequacy of their curriculum and are discouraged when local employers show no desire to engage with them” and that “policymakers feel frustrated that workforce development efforts fail to bolster employment and attract investment.”
But in the San Diego-Imperial Counties region, Perman said each local community college through regional collaborations and partnerships is working hard “outside our educational bubbles” to buck that trend.
The colleges work with groups like San Diego Workforce Partnership and San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation to clarify the needs of different industries and align curriculum and services with those needs.
“We’re making sure the training and services align to employers’ needs,” Perman said. “While we are student focused, we also need to help employers, to see what they’re looking for and see if we have the capacity to help them find students. All the community colleges are on board. It is wiser and better to work together on these fronts. The regional collaboration we’re piloting is hopefully changing the perspective of employers.”
Sectors in Need
According to the Workforce Partnership, there are 72 priority job sectors in San Diego County that pay at least 90 percent of workers $16 an hour or more, provide at least 63 openings each per year and are projected to grow by at least 6.5 percent annually.
Many of those job sectors —including seven considered “high priority” because they provide at least 10,000 positions — are not seeking people with four-year degrees. Those seven include the fields of energy, construction and utilities; healthcare; and information and communication technologies and digital media.
After decades of being in the shadows of universities, community colleges and their associate degree programs and non-credit courses as well, have developed into places where adult learners look to add to their resume, upskill and even change careers.
Community colleges are now required to have industry advisory boards to keep their programs current with different industry needs, thanks to the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, which was enacted to ensure career and technical education programs meet the demands of the 21st century economy, says George Dowden, interim dean of career and technical education at Cuyamaca College.
And like never before, area community colleges are also being invited take part in regional discussions involving businesses, employer needs and how to strengthen relationships between local industries and education systems, says Danene Brown, the regional chair of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Community Colleges Regional Consortium.
As part of her role heading the consortium, Brown oversees outside funding that goes to the colleges in the region. It recently started an employer relations liaison, which helps create work-based learning opportunities for students, creates job opportunities for students and helps the colleges align their curriculum to industry needs.
Based out of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, the consortium helps connect industry sector employers, community college career technical program providers and students with information, and acts as a central contact.
The consortium represents Cuyamaca, Grossmont, Imperial Valley College, MiraCosta College, Palomar College, San Diego City College, San Diego College of Continuing Education, San Diego Mesa College, San Diego Miramar College and Southwestern College.
The consortium works with other local groups that are invested in the future of San Diego’s economy including the Workforce Partnership and the San Diego EDC and its Advancing San Diego initiative. Advancing San Diego is working to strengthen relationships between local industry and education systems so the region is ready for high-demand jobs.
Advancing San Diego looked at data to see the top 10 jobs employers need in qualified people in San Diego and identified a variety of specialty areas, including computer software engineering and medical assisting, Brown said. It asked employers what skills they need to hire someone for a particular job so that educational institutions would learn what they need to provide those skills and championed students completing the program to receive paid internships.
An Aha Moment
“The unintended thing that happened with (Advancing San Diego) was critical for community colleges,” Brown said. “We were invited to the table, we could interact with employers. They were like, ‘Wait a minute…’ They had totally the incorrect view of community colleges. We have more than high school students. We have veterans returning, we have people upskilling. We said, ‘We have the diversity that you seek for your workforce.’ And they said, ‘OK!’ They realized we have this curriculum they were identifying that they needed, and that we can produce the people that have these skills.”
Community colleges have long made their mark offering courses and training for critical middle-skills job positions – the ones that require more than a high school diploma but don’t necessarily need a full bachelor’s degree. Many of those middle-skills jobs that community colleges excel in preparing learners for with associate degrees are in high demand in San Diego County.
According to the Workforce Partnership, the top 10 most common occupations in the county where the typical entry-level education and most common credential nationwide is an associate degree are:
*Preschool teachers (except special education);
*Paralegals and legal assistants;
*Electrical and electronic engineering techs;
*Engineering techs (except drafters);
*Human resources assistants (except payroll and timekeeping);
*Life/physical/social science technicians;
*Architectural and civil drafters.
Cuyamaca’s Dowden said that every community college has career education programs that specifically prepare learners for the workforce.
“Some are for high-demand jobs in priority sectors,” he said. “We want to make sure that we can meet those demands. We look at the labor market and see where we can meet the community for those.”
Dowden said one of the priority sectors is advanced manufacturing and that Cuyamaca continues to check that it aligns with what the industry needs so that students are best prepared. The school also has an Ornamental Horticulture program, and he said that curriculum goes beyond providing the community with floral arrangers, to also include arborists, landscape technicians, land and turf designers.
A Constant Adjustment
Other workforce leaders at individual community colleges in the region are also following job demand trends and working to tailor their curriculum to meet those needs.
“We are constantly adjusting our programs to meet the workforce demand,” said Jennifer Lewis, dean of the school of continuing education and workforce development at Southwestern. “We’re seeing a huge need for hospitality management and the other space is manufacturing. We have a lot of small manufacturers and most of them support the shipbuilding industry in the South Bay.”
Lewis said that Southwestern is “investing big time and big money” to create advanced manufacturing programs to meet the industry need so there is no need to import talent from other parts of the county or state.
The school is also hoping for more funding to add more sections of logistics, behavioral health courses, construction-related fields, sustainability and even entrepreneurship.
“The gig economy is growing, people doing their own thing,” Lewis said. “They come to us and learn about a certain thing, about being a landscape architect or about being a chef… and then they want to start their own business. But they have no idea how do to do that. If you want to be better equipped, they can learn how to be better employers (learning about) payroll and marketing.”
‘Stars Seem Aligned’
At Imperial Valley, Efrain Silva, dean of economic workforce development, said that the community has long been known for its seasonal agriculture work and not for manufacturing. But at least one aspect of manufacturing has a bright future in the region where the unemployment rate is about 16 percent – far higher than the 4 to 5 percent in San Diego County, he said.
The lithium industry is expected to hire about 2,500 people in the Imperial Valley with another 2,500 needed when a “mega factory” for electric car manufacturing is built in the region, he said, thanks to the largest lithium deposit in the Salton Sea.
“Even though the fact that lithium here is not new, the stars seem aligned that the technology for extraction has improved significantly and the need for electrical vehicles means there is going to be a huge demand for lithium batteries,” he said. “I’m very proud that IVC is a the forefront of building training facilities that the companies need. We are about to kick off a course in plant operations, instrument technicians and chemical lab technicians by the next fall semester.”
Nichol Roe, associate dean of workforce development and extended studies at Palomar, said the school has a history of creating programs in high-demand fields. For example, she said, the college launched an Air Conditioning/Refrigeration and Heating program at its Education Center in Escondido.
“The program features a hands-on lab environment for industry experts to train students in a field that is in need of employees who can fill positions left vacant by baby boomers,” Roe said. “Similarly, the college offers a Wastewater Technology program, where employees are in high demand due to the aging workforce within the field.”
There may be a time coming soon when community colleges take on an even bigger role, according to the Centers of Excellence for Labor Market Research, which supports community colleges by providing data on high growth, emerging and economically critical industries and occupations.
“One of our priorities is working with employers who require current/incumbent workers to obtain a bachelor’s degree before they can advance to leadership positions, (such as) directors and executives,” said Tina
Ngo Bartel, director of Center of Excellence, San Diego and Imperial Counties Community Colleges. “Industry sectors such as manufacturing, water, construction and transportation have a lot of positions that don’t require bachelor’s degrees to get their foot in the door. However, once employees reach a certain level, there’s a plateau, and often times the only way to get promoted to senior roles is to get a four-year degree.”
Bartel said community colleges can now offer bachelor’s degrees as long as the programs don’t overlap with existing offerings by University of California and California State University institutions.
“If we can work with employers to create a cross-industry or cross-sector baccalaureate program for working professionals who have years of experience but no B.A./B.S., then we can save employers and incumbent workers thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars on tuition,” she said. “Using their work experience, incumbent workers could receive credit for prior learning and focus on courses that develop their management and leadership skills. Instead of having employees apply for any bachelor’s degree program … why not expedite the process and work with the community colleges to develop a program specifically for these working professionals?”
The American Association of Community Colleges’ Workforce Development Institute will be hosting its annual event close to the San Diego-Imperial Valley region this week. To be held at Indian Wells from Jan. 18-21, the institute says its program will highlight “innovative strategies and promising practices to support workforce and economic development efforts.”