Community colleges: Ready for workforce challenges

By Jack Hershey

Though the economic downturn that’s come on us so suddenly has its roots in something none of us have ever experienced — a global pandemic — it’s certainly not the first time Ohio has had to come together to overcome challenges, or pull itself out of an economic ditch.

The years during and after the Great Recession were tough — very tough. The reduced business activity had far-reaching consequences, including on the revenue our schools and other public and social service organizations depend on to best serve our communities. Though most of the past decade saw Ohio’s economy recover from the depths of the recession, the reality is that the modern economy is still leaving thousands of Ohioans and their families behind.

With unemployment unseen since the Great Depression, the COVID-19 economic downturn will further widen opportunity gaps for many low and middle-class families. The pandemic has already had a devastating financial effect on low-skilled and low-income workers, with 40 percent of U.S. households earning less than $40,000 a year having lost their jobs.

Providing Ohio workers displaced by this pandemic with new and upgraded skills

will be one of the keys to getting Ohio’s economy back on track. Fortunately, the tools we have at our disposal, and the lessons we’ve learned from previous tough times, are enormous assets to which Ohioans can turn. And one of the sharpest tools in Ohio’s recovery toolbox right now is our community colleges.

Our state’s community colleges traditionally see enrollment go up during tough times, as Ohioans wisely seek to improve their skills, businesses look to strengthen their teams, and both groups look towards more affordable options in the marketplace than the traditional four-year university in order to stay competitive. And work is already underway which is perfectly designed to enhance success on all fronts.

With Ohio traditionally lagging the country in the percentage of its workforce with the degrees, certificates and credentials that businesses need to fill in-demand positions, the Complete to Compete Ohio coalition, a public-private group of business, education, workforce and policy leaders, including Ohio’s community colleges, has worked to put together a plan to help our state fill this “skills gap.” The work on a roadmap is finished with the completion of Bridging Ohio’s Workforce Gap and ideas will be shared soon with policy leaders so that we can begin addressing this challenge head-on. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Among the many proposals in the plan is identifying Ohioans who drop out of high school or college to determine why they did not finish and develop interventions and incentives to help re-engage them to get them back on track to completing their educations. Armed with that research, business, education, workforce and government leaders can refocus and redeploy the broad array of resources they possess to help Ohioans lacking needed high-value credentials and postsecondary degrees jump-start their efforts to earn them.

Certainly, one such resource for this is the TechCred initiative that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Governor Jon Husted launched to partner with employers in improving their workers’ skills. What’s especially valuable about TechCred is the ease with which workers can obtain the training and skills they need to advance in their careers, and the fact they do so with the full support and backing of their employer.

As the state’s leading training partner for employers, and as the state’s longest-running group of online education providers, Ohio’s community colleges will continue to be an indispensable part of not only TechCred and efforts to fill our state’s skills gap, but in rebounding from the post-pandemic economic downturn itself. We look forward to doubling down on our efforts in this important work.

Ohio’s 23 community colleges are the home-grown, battle-tested resources to help see us through these difficult times. As past performance has demonstrated, they are not only deeply committed to their public service missions but are also highly capable, and operate with an efficiency needed now more than ever.

The work ahead of us to strengthen Ohio’s workforce programs so more of our fellow Buckeyes can attain the certificate, credential or degree they need isn’t easy, but it’s essential. We’ve come together successfully before to do this work, and we can do it again. Ohio’s community colleges are proud to be active partners in pursuing that goal.