How to create successful and sustainable STEM workforce training programs

Christian Reyes works on some wiring at Felsomat in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois, United States, May 13, 2015. Picture taken May 13, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young - RTX1RMPU

Workforce training programs are increasingly important parts of community colleges: The number of short, vocational credentials earned by students at public community colleges more than doubled between 2000 and 2012. These programs have become more popular, partly in response to growing concerns about an insufficiently trained labor force and job growth in new sectors of the economy.  While a growing body of research suggests that students benefit from earning credentials, very little is known about which particular aspects of workforce training programs are essential for student success.

As part of a newly published Brown Center report, Adela Soliz conducted interviews with multiple STEM-focused training programs at public community colleges around the United States. Importantly, all of the programs were recommended by others in the field as noteworthy exemplars.

Each of these successful programs have several common features, including:

  • Employer engagement in the development of credential curricula;
  • Internship opportunities for students in local businesses;
  • An intensive focus on math, technical, and professional skills in students beyond individual courses;
  • A culture of innovation and a strong leader in the community college;
  • Access to funding support, either from foundations or grant programs.

Synthesizing these interviews and the common features of successful programs, Soliz made the following five recommendations for community college leaders and state policymakers to promote successful workforce development programs.

  1. Credentials should be stackable (classes for credentials build cumulatively toward degree requirements) and portable (recognized outside of local labor markets). This will promote students’ long-term academic success as well as immediate access to in-demand jobs.
  2. College leaders should promote an environment and create incentives for the academic and vocational sides of community colleges to work together.
  3. Colleges should gather detailed program data to link with student record data to evaluate new programs.
  4. States should provide sustainable sources of funding for these programs so that community colleges do not have to overly rely on grants and outside resources.
  5. States should incentivize a third party, such as local chambers of commerce, to facilitate relationships between colleges and local industry.

Soliz concludes that it is difficult to separate student characteristics from program characteristics when determining a program’s success because students are recruited into and select into these programs. Ultimately, more research is necessary to further clarify which aspects of workforce development programs lead to positive student outcomes. Further research should also consider the tension between the academic and vocational sides of community colleges as they compete for enrollment. Finally, research should consider whether generating student interest around these programs and related jobs helps boost completion rates.

Elizabeth Martin contributed to this post.