Detroit Regional Chamber > Detroiter Magazine > Big Time Contributors: Community Colleges Key to Growing Michigan’s Skilled Workforce

Big Time Contributors: Community Colleges Key to Growing Michigan’s Skilled Workforce

December 15, 2022 John Gallagher

John Gallagher | Author

While not always getting the attention they deserve, when it comes to training a new skilled workforce, Michigan’s community colleges contribute big time.

In a workforce of more than 4 million people, Michigan will need about 400,000 new skilled workers by 2030 across a range of industries, from health care and manufacturing to education and data processing, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Four-year degree programs help, of course, especially when it comes to the so- called knowledge jobs. But community colleges offer a quicker, less expensive, and sometimes more effective path to acquiring needed skills, for industries from health care to advanced manufacturing.

Community College Offers Advantages

Community colleges offer two advantages over four-year degree programs, said Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association.

With lower tuition costs than at four-year colleges, plus many new financial aid programs, community colleges are more accessible than ever.

“We’ve always been affordable. Now we’re getting incredibly affordable,” Johnson said.

And second, the 30 or so community colleges in Michigan operate autonomously, not under a broad umbrella organization, so each can react more nimbly to local needs.

“Community colleges are connected to their local employer communities and workforce development communities in a way that four-year institutions traditionally have not been,” said Sarah Szurpicki, director of the state’s Sixty by 30 office.

State Office Pursuing ’60 by 30′ Goal Originally Set by Chamber

Over the past two years, the relatively new Sixty by 30 office has worked to increase the share of Michigan’s workforce with either a skills certificate or four-year degree from 49% to 60% by 2030. To reach that goal, which the state adopted after the Detroit Regional Chamber set the same one for the region, the Sixty by 30 office has created programs geared to community colleges and backed with state funding.

Futures for Frontliners is a scholarship for Michiganders who worked in essential industries during the COVID-19 shutdown in spring 2020. This provides frontline workers with tuition-free access to local community colleges for an associate degree or skills certificate.

Another program, Michigan Reconnect, is a scholarship that pays students to attend their in-district community college tuition- free or offers a large tuition discount if they attend an out-of-district community college.

Szurpicki said that so far, some 45,000 students have taken advantage of the two programs, both of which the Chamber supported.

“It really did bring people back to community college or into community college for the first time,” she added.

Policy Changes Needed to Unlock Full Potential

A couple of changes in public policy would help community colleges do even more.

First, many of the state’s community colleges need to upgrade their infrastructure, from HVAC systems to buying the latest technology used in industry.

“We want students to train on the same equipment they’ll be using in a job,” Johnson said.

With pandemic relief dollars available, there’s no better time to make those investments.

And second, state regulators could look at modifying professional certifications so that something other than a four-year degree is required for many careers.

Hiring the ‘Stars’ to Fill Labor Gap

Thinking that only a four-year degree qualifies a candidate is what some call the “paper ceiling.”

The national nonprofit organization Opportunity@Work encourages employers to consider the more than 70 million workers in the U.S. who are “Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs),” such as community college, rather than  through a bachelor’s degree.

“While companies scramble to find talent amid perceived ‘skills gaps’ and ‘labor shortages,’ many of their job postings have needlessly excluded half of the workers in the country who don’t have a bachelor’s degree, but have the skills for higher-wage work,” said Opportunity@Work CEO Byron Auguste.

‘Not Daunted,’ Upskilling is Within Reach

So the need is real. But with community colleges affordable and innovative, the goal of upskilling Michigan’s workforce is within reach.

“So, yes, it’s not easy,” said Szurpicki of the Sixty by 30 office. But, she added, “I don’t feel daunted!”