West Virginia’s Community & Technical Colleges: Engine of social and economic mobility

West Virginia’s Community & Technical Colleges: Engine of social and economic mobility

Today’s 21st-century knowledge and technology-based economy demands skill development and credentials beyond the high school level. All of the literature seems to suggest that this trend will continue into the foreseeable future.
 
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many of the fastest growing occupations over the next decade will require some form of postsecondary credential (now more than ever) to penetrate those sectors of the job market that offer secure employment and wages sufficient to support a family.
 
Historically, we have defined job types as falling into one of two categories: Blue collar and white collar. However, the new knowledge-based economy has caused the lines to blur between blue and white collar jobs.
 
According to IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, leaders should not think in terms or white collar or blue collar jobs, but to broadly consider future unfilled positions as “new collar” jobs (i.e., jobs that do not require a traditional 4-year college degree). I believe what matters most is that employees have relevant skills, often obtained through training at a local two-year community college.
 
In fact, nearly 70 percent of new collar jobs will require some form of postsecondary credential (e.g., certificate, certification, associate degree or higher) but not necessarily a traditional four-year degree.
 
To help move our state forward and in alignment with other states across the country, I believe that our community and technical colleges must be seen as the hub of West Virginia’s growth. The vision of the future needs to recognize how fundamental the community and technical colleges are to the state’s overall social and economic mobility.
 
Over the past 28 years, while working in higher education, I have witnessed firsthand how education changes societies and significantly impacts the lives of people forever. Without question, higher education improves the lives of West Virginians.
 
Our community colleges prepare students for a number of fields, such as veterinary technology, nursing, health sciences, physical therapy assistant, cybersecurity, aviation maintenance, culinary arts and many other two-year programs. All are fields leading to careers with local business and industries that require knowledge-based employees to maintain the vitality throughout the state of West Virginia.
 
Correcting the state’s perception of who attends college in West Virginia is the first step toward helping hard-working and ambitious people, eager to make a better life for themselves and their families. It will take an unrelenting commitment by our state’s elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists to increase support for our underfunded state higher education institutions, especially West Virginia’s community and technical colleges.
 
One of the major challenges facing the great state of West Virginia is the fact that less than 35 percent of our state residents between the ages of 25 and 64 hold a credential beyond high school. Increasing credential and degree attainment are critical to sustaining and growing the economy at local and state levels.
 
The state’s goal is to equip 60 percent of West Virginians with a post-secondary certificate or degree by 2030. Though most adults have gained knowledge through work and/or life experience, many do not have a credential to show for it.
 
Furthermore, there seems to be an information gap between employers, workers and educational institutions. While employers presumably know which skills they value in an employee, worker themselves and educational institutions have less up-to-date knowledge, and their response lags behind the changing demand.
 
To address West Virginia’s reskilling challenge, we must create more opportunities for adult learners to earn postsecondary credentials that provide the skills employers need. It suffices to say, we must develop strategies, processes and pathways that allow adults to obtain these credentials as efficiently as possible, removing potential roadblocks and leveraging prior learning along the way.
 
The West Virginia Community and Technical Colleges, in partnerships with local industry, provide some of the more innovative reskilling programs in the state.
 
For example, Pierpont Community & Technical College offers workforce retraining opportunities through the Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center, an aviation technician training program. The Aerospace Center is an example of a successful collaboration between a community college, industry and federal grant programs to create workforce opportunities for both young, inexperienced students, as well as more experienced workers who may have been displaced from their previous occupation or are seeking new opportunities.
 
Pierpont’s Aerospace Center not only offers displaced workers the opportunity to gain new skills and re-enter the workforce, but it aims to transition them to a well-paying industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, aircraft mechanics in West Virginia earn $53,940, on average, far higher than the average state income of $40,250.
 
Furthermore, Pierpont offers busy adults an opportunity to obtain a flexible Board of Governors associate degree that can help adults achieve their educational goals and save them both dollars and hours by awarding college credit for documented work and life-learning experiences.
 
While continuing to pursue increased knowledge and higher standards of excellence in teaching and learning, higher education institutions in West Virginia will need to consider more explicitly the primary reason most students attend college: To get a better job and achieve a better life. Because our community and technical colleges are the link of workforce training and higher education, they are essential to preparing West Virginia’s young people for the future and for helping middle-aged and older West Virginians navigate the changing environment of the present day workforce.
 
Moreover, a skilled and educated workforce equates to a healthier economy. Our community and technical colleges are preparing students for careers in high demand, high-wage-paying jobs right here at home.
 
For quality training that is accessible, flexible and affordable, our community and technical colleges can’t be synchronized. Without much acclaim, our community and technical colleges continue to be the engine of social and economic mobility.
 
Dr. Johnny M. Moore currently serves as the third President of Pierpont Community & Technical College in Fairmont, West Virginia. He has over 27 years of leadership experience at higher education institutions at both the two and four-year levels.
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