There are 6.8 million adults in California age 25-54 who have a high school diploma but no higher education credential and tens of millions across the nation. Amidst a rapidly evolving economy and labor market, it’s critical that higher education, employers, economic development entities, and the public sector work together to align their needs and goals in order to support Californians’ careers and boost the state’s economy.
In recognition of this integral alignment between industry and higher education, Calbright College was proud to sponsor the California Workforce Association’s annual conference, Meeting of the Minds, at the start of September 2023.
Calbright’s President and CEO Ajita Talwalker Menon participated in a policy panel with statewide experts in workforce development that focused on collaboration in order to advance and facilitate economic mobility for all Californians, and especially those who have historically lacked access to quality training programs and knowledge economy jobs. The main takeaway: collaboration is critical to change. Businesses, governments, and higher education, must work together to build a system that works for everyone.
New Industries, New Jobs, New Workers, New Partnerships
Brent Parton, Principal Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, made the case in his keynote speech.
“The workforce system is only as good as the partners we have,” he stated.
Right now, Parton said, the U.S. is investing heavily in new jobs and new technologies, “for building roads and bridges, for extending broadband into rural areas, for building electric vehicles and charging stations, and a clean energy infrastructure.” All of these are vital tasks requiring a well-trained workforce.
Currently there aren’t enough workers, and the system to find and train those workers isn’t equitable. “If we just leverage the workforce we have today, it’s not going to look like America,” Parton warned.
To meet this historic moment, “We have to invest in technical assistance and peer to peer networks,” he said. We have to partner with “the National Governors Association to launch a strategic state planning initiative,” along with individual state’s strategic workforce plans and the higher education system.
Education Is Key To Prosperity
Following Parton’s remarks, Michael Younger, vice president of workforce, strategy, and innovation at Calbright College, mentioned that “higher education is often the key to prosperity for individual workers.”
“A barrier to education is truly a barrier to the knowledge economy,” he said, setting the tone for the policy panel to follow. “Therefore we believe that the key to strengthening the state’s economy and the workforce development ecosystem is by way of innovative and effective partnerships that truly reimagine the connection between career and education. So at Calbright, our partnerships involve community colleges, private sector, as well as public sector.”
But Ajita Talwalker Menon, Calbright’s president, said that the role that higher education has to play in these new partnerships will also have to change: “Innovation is not a novelty anymore – it’s a necessity,” she said.
Creating A College That Listens
Calbright was founded to support “stranded workers” – adults with a high school diploma but no clear path to a strong career. When it came time to design programs that would help them, Menon said, Calbright didn’t opt for a traditional approach. “The first thing we started doing was showing up and listening.”
Potential students had unique needs that the traditional higher education system didn’t meet. Calbright began meeting the adult learners where they were, understanding their needs. “We’ve set up this institution to be more responsive,” Menon said.
That means offering free classes to Californians. It means flexible and online classes that allow students to study at a pace that makes sense for them. It means a Competency-Based Education model that measures student progress by what they know, not by how long it takes them to learn it. And it means a constant focus on developing programs that provide students with a pathway to better jobs.
“Calbright uses labor market research to ensure students are learning the most in-demand skills to prepare for the future of work,” Younger said. “We support our students along the way with career and success counselors, and we also partner across sectors to ensure that we’re building new opportunities for upskilling our student population.”
California Is Ready To Collaborate
That emphasis, on listening and adjusting to meet the needs of students, also makes Calbright a good partner for other institutions, Menon said.
“For us in higher ed, it is all about breaking down barriers in a way that allows for affiliation to happen,” she said. As a result, “we’ve engaged with a number of (the organizations represented at Meeting of the Minds), as well as regional Economic Development Agencies, as well as on the ground partners who are seeing the shared problems that we’re talking about … And we’ve been thinking that our role as a higher education system is to sit at a larger table and see where we can add value. Where are the gaps, where are the things that were shared and struggled around?”
The good news, she added, is that California is well positioned to move forward. “The governor is really big on collaboration,” she said. “His intent is that we will work together, not just talk about it.”