Alignment Job: Community Colleges and Workforce Development

In Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s recent 2012 State of the Commonwealth address, he reported that 240,000 people were still looking for work in Massachusetts – and there were nearly 120,000 job openings. Business leaders have told the governor that job applicants don’t have the skills required. One of the actions Patrick called for in response was for better alignment between employers, vocational technical high schools, Workforce Investment Boards (WIBS) and the Commonwealth’s job growth strategy. Similar calls to strengthen the alignment of community colleges and the needs of employers are taking place throughout New England, where governors and legislators are seeking better ways to address the mismatch of those seeking work and unfilled job openings. Community colleges play a significant role in our regional economy not only in preparing graduates for jobs but also in preparing them for transfer to four-year institutions and offering remedial education for what wasn’t learned in K-12. They can play an even more significant role in fueling future economic growth and prosperity. But after years of underinvestment, New England community colleges have lots of work to do even if states are able to provide additional financial resources.

New England community colleges take in significantly less revenue per full-time equivalent (FTE) student than the region’s public four-year institutions, according to the national Delta Cost Project. In 2009, New England’s public four-year institutions had on average $25,441 per FTE to spend on students; community colleges averaged $12,922.

Aligning community colleges programs with the needs of local employers is easier said than done. Long-term job growth projections by states undercount some jobs, overcount others, and don’t take into consideration dynamic shifts in the region and its subregions. For example, last year Fidelity announced that it would shutter its Marlborough operations and relocate the facility’s 1100 workers. While some employees would be relocated to Boston, most would be moved to other states including Fidelity facilities in Smithfield, R.I., and Merrimack, N.H. In total Fidelity would have cut about 5,500 jobs in Massachusetts over the past five years. Further, most community colleges don’t have the needed job developers or have a way to accurately identify real-time job openings for recent graduates. However, a number of promising tools can help colleges mine job openings and make emerging and long-term employment projections.

In September 2011, Jobs for the Future released Aligning Community Colleges to Their Local Labor Markets: The Emerging Role of Online Job Ads for Providing Real-time Intelligence About Occupations and Skills in Demand. The report pointed to new tools using sophisticated mining and artificial intelligence technologies to provide a real-time source of information that could complement college’s traditional strategies to identify local and regional labor-market demand. The tools are especially helpful to identify skills and certifications needed for a specific occupation that can be used for making changes in a college program’s curriculum.

Some of these services are free such as and Simply Hired. These sites mine other job posting sites and aggregate job postings in specific geographic regions. A number of other companies have developed fee-based services that are more sophisticated and have analytics for extracting and analyzing labor market information from job ads. Burning Glass is an example of a service that can provide users with customizable data on skills, education, certifications, work experience and information on salary and job openings by region, industry, occupation or level of educational attainment. An early adopter of Burning Glass is the Maine Department of Labor.

The JFF report notes importantly that the quality and range of these services is undergoing significant change as new systems and new companies emerge in the marketplace.

A number of community colleges and WIBS in New England are using a firm called Economic Modeling Specialists Inc. (EMSI) to perform web-based regional labor market analysis and employment projections. In Connecticut, EMSI is used by Tunxis Community College, Capital Workforce Partners in Harford, the Eastern Connecticut WIB, and WorkPlace, Inc. Five Massachusetts community colleges are also using EMSI – Mount Wachusett, Mass Bay, Northern Essex, North Shore and Quinsigamond. EMSI incorporates almost 90 sources of private, state and federal data including information from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

One traditional measure that has been used to determine whether a community college is successful is an institution’s graduation rate. For community colleges, the rate is based upon first-time, full-time students who earn a certificate or degree within three years. The calculation does not take into consideration part-time students, transfers to four-year institutions and students who take more than three years to graduate. While imperfect, graduation rates do help tell a part of the story. In 2009, nearly 19% of first-time, full-time students entering a New England community earned a degree or certificate within three years, according to the IPEDS Graduation Rate Survey. This compares with a 1999 rate of 25%. While the 2009 graduation rate was lower than in 1999, 46,717 more individuals earned a degree or certificate. However, New England states have a long way to go in even reaching the national community college graduation rate of 29%.

While North Carolina, Texas and Virginia are often pointed out as models for community college and workforce alignment. We should also look north to the Province of Ontario, Canada, and its college system for ideas on how to improve our region’s community college alignment with the needs of the workplace. Ontario’s 24 public colleges offer a range of programs: certificate programs that are one-year or less, two- to three-year diplomas, apprenticeships, and degrees. Some colleges also offer programs in partnership with a university to grant both a college and university degree.

Ontario boasts the highest postsecondary participation and attainment rates among Canadian provinces and ranks high in international comparisons as well. A 2010 report from Statistics Canada Education Indicators in Canada: An International Perspective, indicates that 63% of Ontario’s population ages 25 to 34 have educational attainment to at least the tertiary level (associate degree or certificate) compared with Canada’s national average of 56% and the average across Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries of 37%.

Since 1998, the system’s 24 colleges have been required by the Ontario government to collect and report performance data in five areas – two of which are directly tied to employment and employer satisfaction. The other three measures include graduate satisfaction, student satisfaction and graduation rate. The data from these “Key Performance Indicators” are posted annually on the Ministry of Education’s website.

The system’s results have been extraordinary even during the height of the worldwide recession. The 2010 graduation rate was 64% and the employment rate of graduates was 83%. Even more impressive was the employer satisfaction rate of 93% for recent college graduate hires. This progress has required a significant long-term investment including funding to create more than 400 industry partnerships on applied research projects that have helped to create new jobs in alternative energy, environmental technology, and health and sciences.

New England’s community colleges are well positioned to play an even more significant role in preparing the next generation of employees and growing new businesses as well as helping to fill the projected number of middle-skill jobs. However, community college and state leaders are going to have to make smart decisions on where to invest and how to measure progress. New job posting websites and employment projection tools that use artificial intelligence can help determine where the jobs are and will be in the future. We can certainly learn a great deal from Ontario and its use of a transparent performance system that includes workforce development indicators to guide improvement efforts. Long-term strategic planning and funding will also be keys to the success of this reform initiative.


Stafford Peat is a senior consultant at NEBHE and former director of Secondary School Services at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Among his credentials, Peat is a member of the first graduating class of North Shore Community College.


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