Skills and training

Can Community Colleges Rebuild the Middle Class?

Elizabeth ViviritoMay 24, 2023

Flight delays due, in part, to worker shortages caused WorkRise Leadership Board Member Eduardo J. Padrón to arrive back at his home in Miami at 3:00 a.m. the night before our meeting. Despite this, when we met over Zoom to discuss the state of the economy and how well it was performing for workers, he was poignant and passionate about how to fix America’s labor shortage.

He should know. The former head of the Miami-Dade College (MDC) system for over 25 years, he’s seen what impact a rapidly changing economy has for workers and their families—and, in turn, what effect workers have on the overall competitiveness of our economy.

The statistics that keep him up at night are stark: across the country, we have almost six million jobs, begging for people qualified to fill them. Today, high school graduates have a 9 percent unemployment rate, while those with bachelor’s degree have less than 5 percent. Padrón sees an overlooked opportunity that exists in almost 1,500 communities across the US—community colleges.

We take for granted that during the 20th century, “we allowed high school education to be a universal right for Americans. A free education,” Padrón remarked. High school wasn’t always free—or universally accessible. Yet the “high school movement” rapidly expanded free access to secondary education, starting in the 1910s, and this allowed the United States to leap ahead of other nations in terms of human capital. “That single act was responsible for… creating the most educated workforce in the world” during the 20th century, he said.

Free community college as a national imperative

“The one thing I believe we need to make happen is to make community colleges free,” Padrón said. “We also need to have the understanding that lifelong education is here to stay. The time when people would go to school, graduate, and put the books away is long gone.” Like the high school movement, the impact of making community colleges free would address worker shortages the nation has today but also “for [jobs] that will be created in the future. Accessibility to a post-secondary credential in the 21st century knowledge economy is a national imperative.”

Missing from the national narrative on jobs, he said, is what’s happening to the middle class: “The middle class is the best thing that happened to this country. [It] made us a very strong economy…. I worry a lot about it. The middle class is dwindling.” With only a high school diploma, the best a worker can do can do is hope for a job at the poverty level. So how do we provide new opportunities for workers without postsecondary credentials to reskill, upskill, and acquire the knowledge needed to work in the new economy?

Community colleges innovating to address skills shortages

Postsecondary credentials can go a long way to address educational and skill gaps. Community colleges can build better economic opportunities for workers on the margins immigrants, workers in their 40s and 50s, and women, who struggle with the competing demands of child care, dependent care, flexibility, and equity in the workplace.

For example, during his presidency at MDC, the college established partnerships with Amazon, IBM, Google, Siemens, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, Tesla, and more. The collaborations have helped the college embed industry certifications in artificial intelligence, data analytics, cybersecurity, and cloud computing into its curriculum. MDC also received benefits such as opportunities for faculty training and hardware and software required for the training.

“Industry needs to come to the table in more ways than one,” said Padrón. Internships, partnerships, and on-the-job training and retraining are necessary. One emerging approach that Padrón sees as effective and scalable is offering “stackable credentials,” or credentials that build upon each other and toward degree completion This allows students to complete short-term certificates in cyber security or data analysis, for example, which they can immediately apply to gain work experience. Over time, and while working, they can take more advanced courses to build skills along a specific career ladder while also finishing their degree. This approach was pioneered by MDC over 10 years ago with great success. Recent research shows that 17 states have allocated funding to colleges developing this pathway, and 10 states require that their community college systems offer stackable credentials.

Students benefit by earning marketable credentials while also building toward something greater—an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. And the companies “are getting a well-trained, ready-to-go labor force that they could—and often do—hire.”

Equity and America’s economic competitiveness

There is no conflict between pursuing equity and achieving economic competitiveness. Padrón said, “If we want to have an equitable society, we need to especially help the people that are suffering the most, those suffering the consequences of automation and the digital economy, and… globalization. Those are the people that are in the greatest need to have this opportunity available—and affordable.” At the end of the day, education isn’t just about skills. It’s about building communication, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills that workers need. Good jobs require these regardless of field.

One question still burned, and I closed our conversation by asking it. “Is free community college enough?”

“No, of course it’s not enough, it’s definitely not enough,” Padrón admitted. “But long term—which is what I worry about—it’s the answer.”

Elizabeth Vivirito is a Midwestern-based writer and communications professional.

Share your ideas for research, topics, or events to be featured on Working Knowledge by emailing