Photo by Winston Chen on Unsplash

Desperate for workers, a hands-on industry gets creative to attract talent, with community colleges at the center of the campaign. Also, a new focus on career outcomes at two-year colleges, an update on the federal Good Jobs Challenge, and a Republican proposal for short-term Pell Grants.

The Job
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A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain

‘Optics Are Everywhere’

Demand for workers in this industry is so insatiable that recent graduates with an associate degree often earn $100K per year. Even a one-year certificate can lead to a $60K job and, after a couple years of on-the-job training, a six-figure wage.

The job itself is hands-on and a mixture of art and science. It’s a good fit for chefs, musicians, jewelers and people who might not want office roles.

But first, both prospective students and college administrators would need to have heard about the optics manufacturing industry and to have at least a cursory understanding of what the career track is like for optics technicians. Few do, even in Rochester, New York, the nation’s hotbed for optics.

The industry’s growth “is terribly exciting,” says Alexis Vogt, a professor of optics at Rochester’s Monroe Community College. “It’s also very daunting.”

While labor shortages in tech and healthcare get most of the attention in workforce development, many smaller fields are struggling to train and attract new hires. Companies and governments increasingly are stepping in to pay for workers’ credentials in these industries, while also helping college programs get off the ground.

Optics technicians create lenses and other components used in a growing array of devices, including those used in aerospace, life science and medical treatment, night-vision technology, self-driving cars, satellites and space telescopes, streaming services, and the computer chip industry.

Companies big and small are struggling to hire enough technicians. For example, Amazon is ramping up its precision optics manufacturing lines as it develops a satellite-based broadband service. And colleges are not meeting the demand.

“I’m scrambling right now,” says Vogt, who holds a Ph.D. in optical engineering and worked in the industry before coming to Monroe six years ago.

Building Awareness: A new marketing campaign from AmeriCOM, the American Center for Optics Manufacturing, seeks to get the word out about career opportunities in the industry while also exporting the model for Monroe’s optics program to other colleges around the country.

When Vogt arrived at Monroe, the program enrolled five students. This past academic year it enrolled 101, and all 43 graduates had job offers before they completed.

But even the increased production is a drop in the bucket—the region has about 550 open optics positions each year. Optimax Systems alone could hire 20 technicians in Greater Rochester each month. And Vogt says demand is unmet in many optics clusters around the country.

“This isn’t a Rochester problem. This is a world problem,” she says.

Optimax and other companies are stepping in to help with money, offering their employees as adjuncts, and even marketing support. 

Despite the almost guaranteed payoff for students, community colleges can be slow to add optics programs, if they’re even aware of the industry. And paying enough to hire instructors in optics and many other in-demand industries is a big challenge for the two-year sector, one made trickier as colleges struggle with worsening enrollment-driven budget woes.

“We still can’t hire people at will because enrollment at the college has declined,” says Vogt.

Community Hubs: Monroe’s program largely has relied on external grants to expand. For example, the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research contributed $4.4M for faculty development, apprenticeships, and to enlist 30 corporate sponsors.

“The anchors of a precision optics ecosystem are a community college, the regional optics industry cluster, and nonprofit organizations that focus on workforce development, vocational programs (at the high school level and others), veterans outreach, plus local, state, and federal government representatives,” says Josanne DeNatale, AmeriCOM’s national marketing manager.

The biggest barrier by far for the industry is its low visibility as a career path, DeNatale says, a problem that’s compounded by widely held misperceptions about manufacturing jobs. The campaign seeks to help high school students learn what’s possible in the industry and to recruit them for optics programs at community colleges, including short-term ones.

Front Range Community College in Colorado has an optics program and is a campaign partner. So are New Jersey’s Sussex County Community College and Valencia College in Orlando. Valencia offers fast-track certificates in optics that can be completed in 20 weeks.

Monroe soon will add its own fast-track program. Vogt says an accelerated three-course certificate can be enough for students to get a good entry-level job with a path forward.

The Kicker: “We’re not graduating students fast enough,” Vogt says. “We so desperately need these technicians.”

Community Hubs

Like the optics industry’s campaign, the U.S. Commerce Department’s $500M Good Jobs Challenge seeks to bring together broad coalitions to solve local job-training challenges.

Community colleges play a central role in many of the 32 award projects announced last week, including Dallas College, Miami Dade College, and Illinois Central College. So does N.C. A&T University, which is seeking to train 3K students in clean energy, with 40 employers having committed to hire those workers.

“Employer led, community driven, and worker centered—those three pieces are really key to the DNA of the initiative,” Lauren Starks, the Commerce Department’s program lead for the Good Jobs Challenge, told Work Shift.

The awards cover 31 states and Puerto Rico. They will fund training for 15 industries while aiming to place 50K workers in high-quality jobs.

Apprenti is one of several intermediary groups that will lead grant projects. The nonprofit, which specializes in tech apprenticeships, received $23.5M to develop and diversify the tech workforce in 11 regions.

Click over to Work Shift to read where the $500M is going.

Success After College

The next phase in the community college reform movement is a sharper focus on excellence and equity in post-graduation success.

That’s the central premise of a newly announced project from the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Community college students need to earn credentials that meaningfully expand economic and educational opportunity, say Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at CCRC, and Josh Wyner, executive director of Aspen’s College Excellence Program.

“In most cases, community college “academic” associate degrees have economic value if they enable students to transfer efficiently and earn a bachelor’s degree,” Jenkins and Wyner wrote in describing the project. “But, overall, fewer than one in five students who start in a community college and only one in 10 Black community college starters transfers and earns a bachelor’s degree within six years.” 

The two groups will work with 10 community colleges to improve students’ post-graduation workforce success, reports Lilah Burke, who wrote a deep dive last month for Work Shift on whether community colleges can transform into community hubs for economic and social mobility.

The effort will include establishing a local earnings mark for graduates. Participating colleges will seek to increase the share of students enrolled in career and technical education fields that lead to good wages, while also growing enrollments of students of color in those programs.

This week Burke reported for Work Shift on the new project and its goals

Short-Term Pell

Three top Republican members of the education and labor committee of the U.S. House of Representatives last week announced a student loan bill that includes a proposal to expand eligibility for Pell Grants to programs that can be completed in 8-15 weeks.

This Republican spin on the bipartisan “Workforce” Pell proposal of the stalled JOBS Act features several quality control measures that are designed to protect students and taxpayers. To be eligible, programs would need to:

  • Have a completion rate of 70%.
  • Have a job placement rate of 70%.
  • Charge less in tuition and fees than the median wage bump for graduates two years after they complete (compared to their earnings when they first enroll).

I’ve written about about possible guardrails for short-term Pell Grants. What do you think about this bill? One expert says data collection would be a problem for the proposed income test. And is the bar it sets high enough? Would it help with quality control? Others say job placement rates can be gamed with short-term programs. True? To the degree that it’s not worth trying to find a reasonable target? Send your thoughts my way.

Open Tabs

College ROI

The U.S. Department of Education is hosting a summit today on the future of higher education, with sessions on student outcomes, career pathways, and the industry’s enrollment declines. More than 40 institutions and system leaders will participate, including community college officials. White House and department officials will speak, including Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. A livestream is available here

Degree Requirements

Most employers (68%) want to hire non-degree job candidates, and 72% don’t see a degree as a reliable signal for assessing skills, according to a Morning Consult study commissioned by American Student Assistance and JFF. However, the majority of employers (52%) still hire from degree programs because they believe it is a less risky choice. Likewise, 65% of Gen Z students fear the risk of choosing the wrong postsecondary path.

Members of the North Carolina Childcare Commission recently clashed over whether to allow years of experience to substitute for a bachelor’s degree requirement for educators who work at pre-kindergarten centers, David N. Bass reported for The Carolina Journal. Supporters cited a report from New America in arguing that such a move would help a severe labor force pinch. Opponents said it would put children at risk.

Nursing Shortages

Connecticut is using federal stimulus money to try to curb workforce shortages in nursing and behavioral health. The state’s new $35M program includes tuition assistance for low-income and minority students to pursue accelerated education and training, funding to recruit and retrain faculty members, and a focus on partnerships between employers and colleges to develop career paths.

Green Jobs

A public-private partnership in Rhode Island is backing the creation of a short-term certificate program to train offshore wind workers. Students will be able to earn the safety training certificate from the Community College of Rhode Island in 44 hours. It will be funded through a $4.5M commitment to support education and workforce training from Revolution Wind, an offshore wind project that is expected to create thousands of jobs.

Online Learning

Amazon has added an online learning portal to its marketplace, with 130 courses in programming and cloud computing from the company as well as individual instructors and other organizations. Manoel Cortes Mendez reported on Amazon’s move for Class Central, noting that it follows a similar experiment by Meta. The two platforms appear similar to Udemy. Many of the initial Amazon courses are free and from AWS.

Income Inequality

Wealth stockpiling and wage gains have helped higher-income households maintain spending, which could drive prices higher and encourage the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, reported Jeanna Smialek and Ben Casselman for The New York Times. Such a move could cause a sharp economic slowdown, which would disproportionately hurt low-wage workers, who already are struggling with inflation.

Those of you who wrote me about taking career assessments in high school did not heed the resulting advice, and instead viewed it with distrust. And none of you figured out your career path until after college—but you did well! Thanks for writing. —@paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.