Cultivating a Pipeline of Middle Skill Talent in LA: Investment in Career and Technical Education

Earlier this fall, Dr. Joseph Fuller, professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and a leading researcher on workforce development, met with the Coalition to share insights on best practices to close the workforce skill gap, noting the importance of industry-driven educational programs for middle skill positions. Middle skill positions, which require education beyond high school but not a 4-year degree, account for a significant share of positions in the local economy.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 30% of all job openings in the US between 2015 and 2025 will require some college short of a 4-year degree. Middle skill positions offer average starting salaries well above a living wage with opportunities for career advancement, making them valuable to both the individual and the LA region.

Since 2014, California has invested approximately $1.7 billion in Career and Technical Education (CTE) to prepare the state’s workforce for high growth, high wage middle skill positions.  CTE programs are a gateway to specialized positions across industries and occupations, such as Emergency Medical Technicians, Radiology Technicians, and Electro Mechanical Positions. The salary prospects for a CTE graduate are promising.  According to the California Community Colleges’ Student Success Scorecard, a CTE associate degree (AA) on average results in annual wages of $66,000 five years after graduation, while a general AA yields $38,500.

The state’s recent investments in CTE include $900 million for Career Technical Education Incentive Grants to the K-12 system for new and existing program and $500 million for the Career Pathways Trust to fund K–14 career pathway programs that provide students with a sequenced pathway of integrated academic and career-based education and training. Beginning in fiscal year 2016-2017, the state additionally appropriated $200 million to the Strong Workforce Program to expand CTE programs at community colleges by adding new career pathways, increasing faculty, and strengthening curriculum.  While these investments will strengthen the pipeline of skilled workers willing and prepared to meet employer needs in the region, the following factors have the potential to hinder or enhance their impact:

Academic Readiness for Postsecondary Education: Eight out of 10 community college students in California require remedial classes before moving on to courses that count for credit. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 16% of those students earn a skills certificate or 2-year degree within 6 years, and another 24% transfer to university.  While remedial education reforms are underway and the state allocated $500 million to community colleges last year for remedial education, it is critical that the K-12 system graduate more college ready students. The extensive need for academic remediation serves as a barrier to or delays completion of CTE programs, and academic programs in general.

Student Interest in High Growth Positions: It is not practical for postsecondary institutions to create and scale CTE programs with limited student interest.  Students entering postsecondary education may not be aware of or have limited knowledge of middle skill careers that are prevalent and expected to grow in their geography. Limited student enrollment makes it difficult for career pathway programs to scale and create the talent pipeline employers need. Career Technical Education Incentive Grants and the Career Pathways Trust can increase exposure and interest in careers relevant to the region by starting the conversation with students early in their academic career.

Meaningful Collaboration with Employers: The state recognized that collaboration between academic institutions and employers is critical, including collaboration in various forms as a requirement for funding. Meaningful collaboration ensures academic programs are designed to meet employer needs, ultimately graduating job candidates with the right skills and context to excel. Collaboration should be guided by, but not limited to the requirements for CTE funding. Ross DeVol, the Chief Research Officer at the Milken Institute, summarized what meaningful collaboration entails in his July 2016 Career Technical Education report: “Employers become engaged most effectively when they are given numerous opportunities to interact in pathways development. This should include curricula input, serving on advisory boards, providing apprenticeship opportunities for both traditional students and adult incumbent workers, and regional partnerships.”