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Video: Career Pathways and Economic Mobility at California’s Community Colleges

Vicki Hsieh July 1, 2019
photo - Diverse Students on Campus

About a third of future jobs in California will require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. By training workers for these jobs, career education—also known as career technical education or vocational training—plays an integral role in meeting California’s workforce needs and improving students’ economic well-being.

At an event in Sacramento last week, PPIC researcher Shannon McConville outlined the findings of a new report on career education and economic mobility, and a panel of experts discussed the implications for students, colleges, and the state as a whole.

McConville noted that completing a career education credential at a California community college confers a 20% wage gain, on average. But economic benefits vary greatly across program areas. For instance, returns to health credentials tend to be substantial, while business and IT credentials yield lower returns.

The panelists began by highlighting current efforts to improve students’ labor market outcomes. Marty Alvarado, executive vice chancellor for educational services at California’s community colleges, explained the system’s “two-pronged approach” to making sure programs connect to in-demand, high-return careers. One area of focus is regional infrastructure, which includes regional labor market centers that provide colleges with data on local industries. The second area includes tools to help students better navigate their program choices, “while also trying to make transparent the earnings projections for students as they move into these career options.”

Supporting students—especially low-income students from underrepresented demographic groups—in completing high-return credentials was another topic of conversation. Alvarado discussed efforts at the community colleges to streamline processes that may be creating “unnecessary barriers for students,” while Assemblymember Autumn Burke emphasized the importance of access to social safety net services so students can focus on their career.

Alma Salazar, senior vice president of the Center for Education Excellence and Talent Development at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, noted that all stakeholders need to be involved. “How do we get the system as a whole to take ownership in helping us collectively solve for these problems? . . . It has to go beyond Sacramento. It has to go beyond the system’s leadership. It has to get to the institutional level and the people who work [there], who have to be equally committed.”

While many see the evolving nature of work and increasing automation as challenges, Assemblymember Burke was optimistic about providing a “just transition” for workers who may lose jobs in fast-changing industries. “We can train people for this new economy [and] prepare them now. . . . It’s a shortcoming to worry about losing minimum-wage jobs, because there’s so much opportunity on the other side.”

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