Preparing America’s labor force: Workforce development programs in public community colleges

Adela Soliz
Adela Soliz Former Brookings Expert, Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Public Policy - Vanderbilt University

December 9, 2016

The number of short, vocational credentials earned by students at public community colleges more than doubled between 2000 and 2012.  Though there is a growing body of research suggesting that students benefit from earning these credentials, very little is known about which aspects of workforce training programs are essential for student success.  This policy paper makes use of interview data from multiple STEM-focused workforce training programs at public community colleges around the country to identify five common characteristics of successful programs.  In addition, this paper makes five policy recommendations for state policymakers and community college leaders who seek to develop successful workforce training programs: 1. They should design programs to promote students’ long-term success as well as immediate labor market outcomes, 2. Colleges leaders should create incentives for the academic and vocational sides of community colleges to work together, 3. Colleges should gather detailed program data and link it to student record data in order to evaluate new programs, 4. States should provide sustainable sources of funding for these programs so they do not have to rely on grants and outside resources, and 5. States should incentivize some third party, such as local chambers of commerce, to facilitate relationships between colleges and local industry.

Workers work on a new Volkswagen Crafter diesel engine


Some scholars predict that by 2018 the United States will be short three million college graduates (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl, 2010).  The conversation among the higher education policy community has shifted from a focus on college enrollment to concerns about college completion.  Perhaps partly in response to growing concerns about an insufficiently educated labor force and low rates of college completion, there has been a large growth in short, vocationally-oriented credential programs at public community colleges over the past decade and a half.

In fact, the number of short vocational credentials awarded by Title-IV eligible, public community colleges grew by 109 percent between 2000 and 2012 (author’s calculations using IPEDS).  These programs require less than the two years of full-time study required for an associate degree and result in a certificate (in some states some of these credentials are referred to as diplomas). These credentials may be long-term certificates (which require at least one year of full-time study, but less than two years) or short-term certificates (which require less than one year of full-time st

udy).  These certificates are offered in many different fields including nursing, commercial vehicle operations, law enforcement, and business.  Many of them are awarded in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields including health care-related fields and advanced manufacturing. However, very little is known about these programs.  Though there is an emerging literature exploring the economic returns for students who earn these credentials, many questions remain.

Ex ante, it is unclear whether students would benefit from enrolling in these types of short, vocational credential programs.  On the one hand, these credentials could be tightly coupled with local labor market needs and provide students with tangible skills that could help them get jobs.  On the other hand, these short programs of study could leave students with a credential that means little to employers and offer them no clear avenue to additional schooling. The rapid growth in short- and long-term certificates awarded by public community colleges may be a positive development, but these credentials must be thoughtfully designed if they are to have any hope of improving students’ labor market outcomes or their access to further education.

This policy report is about STEM-focused workforce training programs at public community colleges which award these types of short, vocational credentials. The purpose of this brief is to report on research conducted to learn more about what common program components are shared across several successful workforce training programs at public community colleges across the United States.  In the next section of the report I review the literature on vocational training programs at community colleges.  This research is built around the question of whether there is an economic benefit for students participating in these programs.  However, these estimates of the economic returns to vocational credentials point to several important questions about the design of programs.  In the third section of this report, I use the data from informational interviews I conducted with community college and program leaders and developers to identify five characteristics of promising STEM-focused workforce development programs.  In section four I use what I learned from these interviews to make five policy recommendations related to the development of future workforce training programs.  The final section of this report concludes.

Background on workforce development credentials

Positive returns to vocational certificates

Several early studies using national data showed that there are economic benefits for students earning associate degrees as well as shorter credentials from community college (Leigh and Gill, 1997; Marcotte et al., 2005; see Belfield and Bailey 2011 for a review).  Leigh and Gill (1997) make use of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to estimate the returns to education for returning adults, compared to students that continue directly from high school into a degree program. Using ordinary least squares regressions controlling for previous ability, the authors find that attending a non-degree program (i.e. a certificate program) at a community college increases earnings 8 to 10 percent more for returning adults than it does for continuing students.  Studies using national data sets were the first to suggest that there may be a benefit for students earning short, vocational credentials.  However, because these programs are designed to improve students’ ability to access local labor markets, it is important to study these credentials in local contexts, using state-level data.

In one of the first studies making use of a state administrative data set to examine the economic benefits of completing short, vocational credentials, Jepsen, Troske, and Coomes (2014) makes use of data from Kentucky’s public community college system for cohorts entering in 2002 and 2003.  These authors estimate the economic returns to certificates, which are one or two semesters, diplomas, which are between one and two years of study and associate degrees which require 60-76 credits.  Using quarterly wage data for students as much as six years after entry, they find that women completing associate degrees experience a return of $2,363, per quarter, on average while men have returns of $1,484, per quarter, on average.  In percentage terms, this is a return of 56 percent, on average, for women and 24 percent, on average, for men.  Diplomas are associated with a return of $1,914, on average, for women and $1,265, on average, for men (which is 45 percent for women and 21 percent for men).  Finally, Jepsen et al. (2014) find that men and women earning certificates at public community colleges in Kentucky experience a return of approximately $300, on average, which, in percentage terms, is seven percent for women and five percent for men.

Since this study by Jepsen et al., a growing body of studies have used state longitudinal data to estimate the returns to short credentials in local contexts.  Backes et al (2014) make use of data from the Florida public higher education system and find relatively high returns to mostly technical certificate programs, and to associate of science degrees rather than associate of arts degrees.  Dadger and Trimble (2015) make use of data from public community and technical colleges in the State of Washington and find that for students earning an associate degree or longer certificate, there are positive effects on wages, hours worked, and probability of employment.  However, these authors also find that there are minimal to no effects from earning a short-term (program of study lasting less than a year) certificates.  Moreover, Dadger and Trimble (2015) find that women experience more positive effects of earning these types of credentials.  This suggests that there may be heterogeneity in returns across fields of study because most common fields of study vary by gender.

Finally, Xu and Trimble (2016) make use of state administrative data from Virginia and North Carolina to estimate the economic returns to short and long certificates from public community colleges within these state higher education systems.  They find variation across these two states in the return to certificates as well as in the effect of earning a certificate on probability of employment.  On average, they find that both short- and long-term certificates have positive impacts on earnings and probability of employment in both states.  In the case of both of these outcomes, the effect of earning a certificate is of greater magnitude in North Carolina.  The authors also examine the effect on quarterly earnings conditional on employment and find effects for only short-term certificates in Virginia and only long-term certificates in North Carolina.

Varying returns across programs and fields of study

The studies described above establish that, on average, there are labor market benefits for students who earn short, vocational credentials at public community colleges.  However, these average estimates mask heterogeneity in returns across field of study.

Dental hygiene student Rimpi Walia performs a procedure on a patient
Chabot College dental hygiene student Rimpi Walia performs a procedure on a patient during a free medical clinic REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Backes et al. (2014) find that for students in Florida, the largest returns are for students acquiring technical skills.  They find that students earning short credentials in health, transportation, construction, manufacturing (mostly certificates), and security experience economic returns when they enter the labor market.  Stevens et al. (2015) find that in California, there are statistically significant returns to most credentials earned in health, business, engineering and industrial technology, family and consumer science, and protective services.  On the other hand, students earning credentials in IT-related fields do not experience positive returns to their degrees (Stevens et al., 2015).  In Washington State, Dadger and Trimble (2015) find that there is a large return to nursing degrees for women.  In addition, they find that there is a large return to short-term degrees in protective services for men.  Though, for women, on average, the returns to long-term certificates are higher than the returns to associate degrees, there are positive returns to associate degree across fields, whereas the positive returns to the long-term certificates are driven by the large number of degrees of that type awarded in nursing or allied health (Dadger and Trimble, 2015). Xu and Trimble (2016), making use of data from Virginia and North Carolina, also disaggregate effects by program of study and program within broad field of study.  They find considerable heterogeneity within field, across states, as well as within state, across field of study.  Their most consistent finding is that there are positive returns to certificates in health-related fields (Xu and Trimble, 2016).

Xu and Trimble (2016) also make the point that, within health-related certificates, there is heterogeneity in returns across specific programs of study.  For example, there are large, positive returns to long-term certificates in “dental assisting” but returns to programs in medical office assisting are not statistically significant (Xu and Trimble, 2016).  Finally, they compare the industries in which students were employed before and after completing their certificates in order to explore the hypothesis that some of the economic returns to these programs are due to students using these certificates to move from a low to a high paying industry.  A large percent of their sample does appear to be using the certificate programs in this way.

On average, across programs, within states, completing a vocational credential at a community college is beneficial for students, particularly in some fields.

These studies demonstrate that on average, across programs, within states, completing a vocational credential at a community college is beneficial for students, particularly in some fields. However, the heterogeneity in returns across fields of study and across programs within particular fields suggest that there are additional factors, possibly related to program design or links with local labor markets that affect whether or not students benefit from earning these types of credentials from public community colleges.

Two studies provide some evidence as to how program design may affect the returns to these credentials.  Grubb (1995) demonstrates that students experience a return to their degrees only when they find work in fields related to their field of study.  In addition, Xu and Trimble (2016) disaggregate estimates, not just by field of study, but also by programs within a given field and find heterogeneity in returns across programs.  This suggests that workforce training programs are very different in their ability to produce strong returns for graduates. Why this variation exists is unclear, but programs designed around clear local labor needs and with links to local employers are plausible drivers of this observed variation.  Xu and Trimble’s (2016) finding that there is heterogeneity across program of study in the benefits students experience to earning these credentials could also be used to infer that employers place a value on community college training for some jobs but not others.

Despite this growing body of research on the effect of earning a short, vocational credential from a public community college, many questions about these training programs remain.  For example, how do specific program features mediate these benefits?  To what extent does it matter whether a training program has links with local industries?  Also, to what extent does it matter whether students earn a nationally recognized license in the process of earning a vocational credential from a community college?  Finally, how do pedagogical and curricular features of the program affect who enrolls in, completes, and benefits from these programs?

To my knowledge, only one extant study helps us understand the extent to which program design features affect whether students benefit from workforce training.  Maguire et al. (2010) study the effects on students’ labor market success of participating in one of three sectoral employment programs around the U.S.  Because this study focuses on just three programs, rather than averaging across many different programs at many different community colleges, the authors are able to identify common program elements that may contribute to student success (Maguire et al., 2010).  Maguire et al. (2010) evaluate short-term outcomes for students participating in short vocational training programs at one of three nonprofits: the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, Jewish Vocational Service- Boston, or Per Scholas.  Importantly, these programs are all well-established and recruit students to participate who they have determined have a high probability of success.  In addition, because these programs are run out of nonprofits, they may be more flexible and able to adapt to local labor market needs than programs at public community colleges.  Finally, it may be easier for these nonprofit programs to maintain successful relationships with local industry if they have less bureaucracy or other hurdles to overcome than most public community colleges.  The authors find positive impacts, on average, on probability of employment and wages for students who participate in training programs offered by these nonprofits.  The authors identify several characteristics of these programs that make them successful.  For example, these programs have administrative flexibility, strong relationships with local employers, they teach general skills as applied to the occupation students are preparing to enter, and they provide students with any additional support they need to finish the program and find a job.  In my research into what makes STEM-focused workforce training programs at public community colleges successful, I found many similarities between the promising programs I identified and the three programs evaluated by Maguire et al. (2010).

Components of a successful workforce development program

In order to learn more about successful STEM-focused workforce training programs at public community colleges around the U.S., I first contacted three experts in the field and asked them to recommend promising programs run by community colleges or by nonprofits with some community college connection.  I then contacted each of the program or college leaders recommended by these experts and asked for a short, 30-minute phone interview.  In the cases in which I successfully procured an interview, I asked those I spoke to if they could recommend an additional contact within their program for me to interview.  Through this “snowball” method I was able to obtain multiple perspectives into the daily functioning of several workforce training programs.

I used a semi-structured interview approach in which I started by asking interviewees to simply describe their program, As they spoke I asked clarifying questions or additional questions about particularly interesting features of their program or its development, building on what interviewees brought up in the course of their general descriptions.  I also asked all of those I interviewed to explain what they thought were the keys to the success of their program as well as any obstacles they faced in the program’s development or day-to-day maintenance.  Through this approach I learned about the daily functioning of multiple different workforce training programs in public community colleges around the country.  I also gained an understanding of what makes individual programs successful from the viewpoints of the program leaders, developers, professors, and tutors who I interviewed.  What follows are five themes or commonalities I identified across programs that seem to contribute to their success.

  1. Successful workforce training programs at public community colleges include industry or employer engagement in curricular development.

Workforce training programs at public community colleges are often criticized for providing training that is misaligned with local labor market needs (Holzer, 2015).  Critics argue that students in these programs are trained on old equipment and graduate with outdated skills (Holzer, 2015).  In order to assure that workforce development programs at community colleges prepare students to meet the labor demands of local industries, both in terms of broad area of focus and specific technical skills, successful programs engage local employers when curriculum are being developed.

Spaulding and Martin-Caughey (2015) develop a framework for improving industry engagement with workforce training programs.  These authors start by identifying obstacles to cooperation between workforce training programs and local industries.  On the college side obstacles may include competition for funding, a lack of understanding of how to effectively engage employers and inability to adapt or change quickly (Spaulding and Martin-Caughey, 2015).  On the employer side obstacles include not seeing the value in working with community colleges if they can train their workers themselves.  Also, employers might not want to work with each other if they compete for labor and market shares (Spaulding and Martin-Caughey, 2015). In addition, cooperation between industry and local community colleges may be time intensive and difficult if there is a culture clash or the two types of organizations don’t “speak the same language.”  Employers may also have trouble working with local colleges if there is no clear process for developing the relationship.  If colleges don’t have a point of contact for local businesses, then, though businesses may try to engage with local community colleges, the right person at the college may not get the message.  Finally, administrators at the college may also be concerned about stepping on the toes of other departments and want to be careful not to “steal” a potential relationship that colleagues in another department are trying to develop.

Promising workforce training programs manage to engage with employers despite these obstacles.  First, representatives from successful workforce development programs describe surveying local employers to determine their needs before developing program curricula, so that they do not produce workers with outdated skills or skills that are misaligned with local labor market needs.  One representative from Growth Sector, a sectoral partnership in which a third party collaborator (Growth Sector) helps to facilitate networks between community colleges and local industries in California, described surveying local employers before determining the math curriculum for their workforce training program.

Representatives from Lorain County Community College (LCC) describe a multistage process which culminated in the development of their mechatronics program and the creation of their SMART Center.  In the course of the development of this program LCC was able to overcome each of the obstacles identified above.  First, because college leaders and program developers at LCC had access to an “innovation fund” they had the resources to survey local employers and identify that there was a need for workers trained in sensor technology.  After identifying this local labor market need, they submitted a grant application to the state for the funds necessary to buy equipment and create the SMART Center.  In this way they made sure that students would be trained on the most up-to-date equipment.  Next, they leveraged a long-standing relationship with Case Western University to staff the SMART Center and borrowed and adapted curricula from a program in New Mexico to develop their training program.

Because LCC truly thinks of itself as the “community’s college,” college leaders have placed a premium on establishing and maintaining long-standing relationships with local industry.   As a result of this mindset and these established networks, LCC does not have trouble communicating with local employers.  Additionally, local employers have a strong incentive to work with LCC because of the SMART Center.  The SMART Center fills a local training need because it is not cost-effective for local employers to buy the equipment they would need to train workers in this sensor technology.  In fact, local employers farm out work to LCC’s SMART Center, which in turn employs students from its MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) training program.  Thus, not only is this program at LCC filling an essential training need for local industries, the SMART Center is providing a forum for students to engage with employers, building networks that should help them when they graduate from the program at LCC.

Spaulding and Martin-Caughey (2015) point out that there are multiple ways in which an employer may benefit from engaging with workforce training programs.  For example, employers benefit from these relationships if they provide the opportunity to find qualified workers, allow businesses to avoid or reduce costs associated with training their own workers, or fill training needs that would be inefficient for the employer to provide themselves (Spaulding and Martin-Caughey, 2015).  Successful workforce training programs provide the opportunity for employers to realize all of these benefits.

  1. Promising workforce training programs include the opportunity for students to gain workplace experience in the course of their program of study.

Another common trait of the STEM-focused workforce training programs in my sample is that they provide students the opportunity to gain some work experience through some type of internship.  Student internships clearly benefit students by giving them the chance to gain experience in their chosen field, allowing them to apply skills they learn in the classroom and providing the opportunity for them to build their professional networks.  Hosting internships also has benefits for employers as it gives them the chance to try out potential workers at a relatively low cost.

As described above, though LCC’s MEMS training program may not provide internship opportunities with outside employers, the SMART Center provides a parallel opportunity for students to engage with employers.  Internships are also an essential component of P-tech, an early college high school, the first of which was developed in Brooklyn, that developed out of a collaboration between IBM and the City University of New York.  Though an internship or work experience is only a component of these successful workforce training programs (in contrast to the apprenticeship model, in which all training takes place “on the job”), general education components of the curriculum may also be built around the practical application of skills.  For example, one math professor in the Growth Sector network described explicitly tying math curriculum to the engineering skills that students are trying to develop.

  1. Successful workforce training programs take an intensive approach to building students’ math and technical skills. Many successful programs also provide students with academic support beyond that received in the college in general. 

Academic barriers may prevent many students from earning STEM-focused vocational credentials from public community colleges.  The curriculum of these programs often requires college-level mathematics, but the majority of students who enter public community colleges do not have college-level math skills.  One study of students entering community colleges within the Achieving the Dream network found that 59 percent of students were placed in developmental math but only 33 percent of students completed the developmental math sequence (Bailey, Jeong and Cho, 2010).  Remedial or developmental courses may not be an efficient or effective way for students to gain the math skills they need (see Long 2014 for a review of research on remedial or developmental education). A common feature of promising STEM-focused workforce development programs is that program leaders have adopted out-of-the-box strategies for bringing students’ math skills up to college level or for getting students through challenging gateway courses.

At Austin Community College one professor adopted a “flipped classroom” for teaching a biology course that serves as a gateway to several health-related credentials.  In this model, students view lectures online, on their own schedule, and class time is used for project-based learning in small groups, in which students have the chance to learn from their peers.  An important advantage of this course design is that, because the professor walks around the class interacting with the small groups, students may actually get more individual attention than they would if the professor was leading the class in a traditional lecture format.  By interacting with small groups of students and observing them problem-solve, the professor is more easily able to identify and correct students’ misunderstandings or gaps in understanding than she would be in a traditional classroom model.

STEM-focused workforce development programs in the Growth Sector network are committed to bringing their students from basic math up through pre-calculus within a single year by teaching math intensively.  Students pursing STEM-focused vocational credentials through Growth Sector enroll in three classes a semester at their community college.  Two of these class periods are taken up by a math class taught by a single instructor.  Though this means that over half of students’ first year coursework is in math, rather than engineering or other content which may fit more with their interests, students placed into remedial or developmental courses at public community colleges are often completely blocked from taking courses beyond the remedial courses.

In addition to taking an intensive approach to teaching math, Growth Sector also has students go through the program in a cohort model, which may benefit students by creating stronger peer networks.   One professor described the sense of community that he observed among students experiencing this cohort model.  Because of the cohort, students have a ready group of potential resources (each other) when they have questions or problems with academics.  Finally, in the Growth Sector model, students also benefit from a tutor who provides support with both academic and life issues.  Importantly, this tutor is not someone students have to find and arrange to meet with.  The tutor attends classes with the cohort, so students can easily access him or her before or after class.  In addition, the tutor provides a bridge between students and the professor.  The math professor I interviewed explained that he would be unaware of challenges faced by some students if it weren’t for communication from the tutor.  He said this made him better able to help students persist and get through his challenging material.

  1. Successful STEM-focused workforce training programs develop in colleges that have strong leadership and a culture of innovation.

Several college and program leaders described the administrative barriers to developing new workforce training programs at their colleges.  At many public community colleges, creating a new credential program requires meeting the requirements of several bureaucratic layers before the program is approved and can be implemented.

Curricular development for new programs can also require cooperation between the academic and vocational sides of a college, which many college representatives that I spoke to brought up as a particular obstacle to creating new programs.

However, successful colleges were able to overcome these bureaucratic hurdles as well as be innovative in the development of the content of their programs because they were in colleges and localities with strong leaders who were interested in innovation.

At one end of the spectrum, P-tech was able to overcome the hurdles involved in the development and implementation of a new education model requiring multiple networks, because they had support from the New York City mayor, as well as Governor Cuomo.  This unique situation may have resulted from the clout IBM has as a major employer in New York.  However, in other cases, colleges without an influential partner such as IBM were still able to innovate at least in part because they had a leader committed to innovation and state leadership that recognized the benefits of supporting networks between employers and public community colleges to help grow the local economy.  For example, at LCC having strong leadership interested in innovation at the college and state levels helped pave the way to the development of their unique mechatronics program and the development of the SMART Center.

  1. Finally, promising workforce training programs often have access to foundation or other outside funding sources.

Declining state appropriations for higher education have left public community colleges with ever-tightening budgets and increasing reliance on tuition dollars as a source of revenue.  Given the scarcity of public resources, it is not surprising that a common characteristic of the successful STEM-focused workforce training programs in my sample was that they had access to some source of outside funding for the initial development of their program or to fund the process of making pedagogical or curricular changes to an existing program.  Several colleges in the sample benefited from grants from the Achieving the Dream network.  Other programs, such as the Growth Sector network rely exclusively on foundation funding for their work. Finally, some colleges benefited from the Department of Education’s Workforce Innovation Fund Grants, which specifically helps promote workforce training programs that graduate workers to fill local labor market needs.

Policy recommendations

In this section I make five policy recommendations to facilitate the development and sustainability of successful STEM-focused workforce training programs.  The first three recommendations are aimed at community college leaders and focus on promoting cooperation between the academic and vocational sides of the colleges, developing programs that will have long-term benefits for students, and gathering data.  The second two recommendations are intended for state policymakers.  I suggest that state policymakers help to facilitate coordination between public community colleges and local industry and that states provide a sustainable funding source so that colleges do not have to rely on foundation or other outside funding sources for the maintenance of successful programs.   

  1. Colleges and program leaders should develop workforce training programs, not just with an eye to immediate labor market access, but to students’ long term outcomes. To this end, credentials should be stackable (classes for credentials build cumulatively towards degree requirements) and portable (recognized outside of local labor markets).

Labor markets are not static.  Lalonde and Sullivan (2010) describe the issues faced by displaced workers and make a series of proposals that could help these workers adapt to changing labor markets.  Even when industries are not specifically shutting down, rapidly changing technologies may force many workers to return to school and upgrade their skills just to keep hold of their current jobs.  Ideally for these students, obtaining additional training would not require that they start from square one.  A potential downside of certificate programs, which are highly focused on a particular skill set, is that students who earn them may have to retrain every time the local economy changes or they want to advance in their job.  If credentials are designed to be stackable then one certificate program builds on another and, ideally, a series of these credentials will add up to an associate degree.

Likewise, Americans are increasingly mobile.  On the one hand, when community college credentials are tightly linked to local labor markets, this may increase the immediate benefits of earning such a credential.  However, if credentials that are valued in local labor markets are not recognized in other labor markets and across state lines, workers with these credentials may have to retrain if they are forced to leave the local labor market.  Thus, ideally, vocational credentials awarded by public community colleges would be portable so that they are recognized by similar industries in other localities.  The National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3) provides one model for assuring that credentials are portable.  NC3 develops credentials at the national level before designing and implementing the training programs at local colleges.  These credentials are also designed to be stackable.

Though there is a growing push to design short credentials to be stackable, we know very little about whether students choose and are able to take advantage of the stackability of short credentials, though theoretically credentials with these features should benefit students by increasing the likelihood of completing an academic degree by shortening the time and cost to completion.  There is also not yet any robust research on whether or how stackability affects labor market returns or other benefits that students receive from earning community college certificates.

  1. College leaders should create incentives for the academic and vocational sides of community colleges to work together during the development of workforce training programs.

Several community college representatives with whom I spoke described a disconnect between the academic and vocational sides of community colleges.  One interviewee said that senior leadership doesn’t understand the vocational side of the college and another person with whom I spoke implied that it is difficult to build and innovate within these workforce development programs because of in-fighting between the vocational and academic sides of the college.  This has important implications for sustaining enrollment in workforce development programs (because the academic and vocational sides of the college may be competing for enrollment) as well as whether credentials can be made stackable. In order for a stackable credential to benefit students, they have to be able to move between the vocational side of the college, where they earned the initial short certificate, and the academic side, where they would continue a longer associate degree.  This in turn would require that the vocational and academic sides of the college agree upon the curriculum of these credentials, so that the academic side will accept credits earned on the vocational side.  Community college leaders seeking to facilitate communication and cooperation between the academic and vocational sides of the college should consider making use of a third party mediator in order to overcome barriers to cooperation and communication.

  1. Colleges and program leaders should gather data to track outcomes including persistence; completion; short, medium, and long-term labor market outcomes; and the attainment of further education.

STEM-focused workforce development programs should gather data on student enrollment, persistence, completion and labor market outcomes.  It is essential that this data be collected in order to determine whether new programs retain students and improve labor market outcomes for example, by increasing rates of employment and leading students to find jobs that pay higher wages.  Moreover, in order for community college leaders, researchers, and other interest groups to determine whether program participation has a positive effect on student outcomes, and to determine which program components are particularly essential to student success, program data needs to be linked to full student records as well as unemployment insurance (UI) data and made available to researchers.  A program’s success can’t be determined only by descriptive statistics or trend data.  Students are recruited and select into these programs and it is not possible to determine from descriptive statistics or trends whether a program is successful because of student characteristics or program characteristics.

If program data is linked to student record data, then, at the very least, researchers analyzing trends in program data can control for student characteristics.  In the ideal situation, if program data is linked to detailed student record data as well as UI data, it may be possible to obtain causal estimates of program effects (as opposed to descriptive estimates, as in the case of trend analyses) using quasi-experimental methods. The difficult nature of determining whether it is program characteristics, or student characteristics, that are driving positive trends in student outcomes has important implications for the likelihood that a program will be able to be scaled up successfully or replicated in different contexts or with different groups of students.

Collecting program data and linking it to student record data is also essential for community college and program leaders.  First, this data will allow program leaders to analyze who selects into this program.  This type of analysis is essential for student recruitment and for understanding how new workforce development programs fit into the larger institution. This data can also be used to make the case for additional funding, to recruit additional partners or to make the case for increasing the scale of the program. Indeed, representatives from Growth Sector describe using program data and trends to convince additional colleges to join their network. Finally, data on student participation, persistence and success should also be used for data-driven decisionmaking about curricular changes or the development of additional programs.

  1. State policymakers should make sure community college leaders and program developers have access to seed money for innovation as well as developing a plan for sustaining funding for programs that prove to be successful.

Several of the promising STEM-focused workforce development programs in my sample were developed with the aid of foundation funding.  This makes sense insofar as many of these programs are innovative and additional, outside funding may be necessary in order to give these programs the freedom to innovate in the initial stages of development.  However, in order for these programs to be sustainable, the state and institution must plan to invest in those that demonstrate success beyond the initial start-up period.  Successful workforce development programs produce human capital and have positive impacts on the local economy; state and local leaders should see the value in making investments that achieve these goals. Ideally, partners from local industries who are benefitting from programs that seek to help fill labor force needs would be also be willing to invest in these programs.

  1. States should help coordinate relations between industry and colleges through some central body such as local chambers of commerce.

Successfully building and maintaining relationships with local industries is a major obstacle for many community colleges interested in developing STEM-focused workforce development programs. Some community college and program leaders who had overcome this obstacle described developing relationships with local industries over long periods of time.  Representatives from Patrick Henry Community College, who had highly functioning relationships with local industries emphasized the importance of welcoming the perspectives of local industries, being flexible to accommodate them, and being efficient in interacting with them (i.e. only holding meetings with clear agendas and keeping them short).  Colleges that don’t already have these relationships would benefit from a third-party collaborator helping to establish and support networking between local industries and public community colleges.  Growth Sector is an example of a model for developing networks between community colleges and local industry in which a third-party, nonprofit organization coordinates and manages the network.  However, the third party does not have to be an independent nonprofit.  It could be a local entity, such as a chamber of commerce, that has connections with public higher education leaders as well as local employers.  The chamber of commerce could be a natural coordinator of these networks because it also has a vested interest in maintaining the health of the local economy and likely already exists in many communities where community colleges are located.


This report described five common characteristics across promising workforce training programs which seem to contribute to their success.  However, none of these programs, to my knowledge, has been subject to a rigorous evaluation.  In several cases, data is being collected on students in order to keep track of persistence and employment rates of participants.  However, because students are recruited into and select into these programs, it is difficult to disentangle program effects from characteristics of the students themselves.  In other words, a student who chooses to participate in a workforce development program with an intensive mathematics component such as the programs associated with Growth Sector may be a particularly determined and motivated student to start with.  If these students successfully graduate and find gainful employment after completing the program, this may have more to do with the characteristics the students came into the program with, rather than elements of the program itself.  More research is essential to determine whether these types of workforce training programs have a positive, causal effect on students’ outcomes.

Also important in considering the future development of these programs is the observation that many of these programs have problems developing and maintaining enrollment.  This is interesting and also speaks to the dual mission of the community college—students may be more drawn to the academic side (the more “traditional” college side of the institution), and so the vocational and academic sides are competing for enrollment.

This issue, brought up by many of the college representatives with whom I spoke, may at first seem at odds with overall growing trends in the completion of short, vocational credentials.  Yet, the on-the-ground perspective that attracting and maintaining enrollment in new programs is a challenge suggests that there is a great deal of variation in enrollment trends across individual programs, and may be a product of the inherently more dynamic and responsive model workforce development programs operate under.  It also suggests that it may take more effort from the community college to educate students about these new programs and persuade them that these career pathways could be beneficial and fit with their interests.  One representative from Northern Virginia Community College explained that students are not interested in the jobs these programs are training them to enter; therefore, building student interest around the program content and employment trajectories associated with these credentials is an essential component of program development and has not received commensurate attention.


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Thank you to representatives from the following colleges and organizations who participated in this research:

  • Patrick Henry Community College
  • Lorain County Community College
  • Northern Virginia Community College
  • Austin Community College District
  • Houston Community College System
  • Growth Sector
  • P-Tech
  • NC3
  • The Aspen Institute
  • The Community College Research Center
  • Achieving the Dream

  • Footnotes
    1. This includes both short and long certificates, which require fewer semesters of full-time study than an associate degree.
    2. They define returning adults in two ways, first by the age at which a degree is completed (they hypothesize that observations not earning their degree until the age of 25 or older may be returning adults) and second by determining that an observation probably experienced a gap in their schooling (though they don’t have information on when degree programs were started).
    3. I chose to take notes during interviews rather than record them.  While this results in less data, I believe it makes potential interviewees more willing to agree to be interviewed and more willing to speak candidly.
    4. SMART Microsystems are related to taking MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) Sensor technology from development to production.
    5. UI data is used to track students’ labor market outcomes.