A new economic mobility playbook for community colleges from Harvard’s Project on Workforce. Also, AWS goes big with a curricular partnership with dozens of colleges, and the implosion of a tech training provider.

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

The Key to ‘Shared Prosperity’

As community colleges struggle to cope with a severe enrollment crisis—a 37% dip since 2010—a growing number of experts are calling on the two-year sector to prioritize the economic mobility of their students and to double down on partnerships with employers.

The first book from Harvard University’s Project on Workforce includes a playbook for how community colleges can meet the moment and “play a catalytic role in regional economic development.”

To do that, the colleges must make workforce education an institution-wide priority and focus on serving both employers and students, says Robert B. Schwartz, a professor emeritus of practice at Harvard and co-editor of the book, which is titled America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity.

“If community colleges are going to survive and thrive, they need to build better ties with industry leaders and political leaders,” says Schwartz, a senior adviser to the Project on Workforce.

He says the sector’s challenges are complicated by its underfunding relative to four-year public universities and the long-held view in most states that community colleges serve primarily as feeders to those institutions.

Even so, the book strikes an optimistic tone, arguing that community colleges are the best placed U.S. institutions to reverse the rise of economic inequality by race, class, and geography. It also includes case studies by Harvard graduate students on a diverse set of five community colleges that get this complex work right. They are:

  • Lorain County Community College in Ohio
  • Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
  • Northern Virginia Community College
  • Pima Community College in Arizona
  • San Jacinto Community College in Texas

“This is going to look different in different places,” says Rachel Lipson, the book’s co-editor and the co-founder and inaugural director of the Project on Workforce. (Lipson left Harvard earlier this year to become a senior policy adviser in the CHIPS Program Office at the U.S. Department of Commerce.)

A common thread, however, is that Lipson says the five colleges put what students want at the center of their mission, which are pathways to good jobs.

“This is really a culture that we’re talking about,” she says. “There has to be some appetite for risk taking—what can be done instead of what can’t.”

The blueprint Lipson describes in the book includes how community colleges can see around corners with the effective targeting of jobs and fields and that map to high-growth and good-wage opportunities. That requires the quality use of labor market information, she writes, as well as tapping sources on the ground, including faculty members with strong industry ties.

To move in a forward-looking direction, however, often requires help from policymakers and employers, says Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College.

“You get what you incentivize,” she says, pointing to the deep institutional buy-in at NOVA for FastForward, Virginia’s short-term training program for in-demand industries. “It’s because they know the resources are there.”

Beyond the sort of student aid the state has directed to FastForward, Kress says policymakers could allow community colleges to charge differential tuition for programs in high-demand fields, which tend to be expensive to offer. Employers can kick in funding and loan faculty members to colleges.

Schwartz says a common denominator in the Project on Workforce’s focus during its first few years of existence is the importance of community colleges. The sector will be crucial to whether the national push on skills has a serious impact, for example. Noncollege training programs like Year Up and Per Scholas don’t have the scale to drive enough change, he says, no matter how successful they may be.

The Kicker: “They are a drop in the bucket relative to community colleges,” says Schwartz.

Work Shift: New AWS skills initiative brings employers into the heart of college learning

The Skills to Jobs Tech Alliance aims to help colleges rework tech education by starting with the skills employers say they most need.

Bitwise Industries Goes Bust

One of the nation’s larger college alternatives appears to be collapsing.

Bitwise Industries, a coding bootcamp and tech apprenticeship provider, furloughed all 900 of its employees last week. Those affected include hundreds of workers whom Irma Olguin Jr., the company’s co-founder and co-CEO, described as “underestimated talent”—students from low-income backgrounds who were attracted by the company’s promise of skills training and career opportunities.

When I wrote about Bitwise last year, it had prepared more than 10K students for tech careers since its founding a decade ago in Fresno, California. The company offered apprenticeships that were registered with the federal government, and it was expanding to nine other midsize cities, including six outside California. Earlier this year it raised $80M from investors.

The complicated business model included a tech services consulting arm, where students who completed training at Bitwise worked on contracts to build custom software. The company also invested in real estate.

Bitwise was “trying to accomplish numerous social as well as business goals—from revitalizing downtowns in smaller cities to employing and training the diverse populations of those communities,” says Deborah Kobes, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population. “They combined that wide mission scope with a rapid scaling model.”

Those ambitions came crashing down abruptly late on Memorial Day. The company, citing unexpected financial duress, told all of its employees that they would be furloughed, effective immediately, reported Tim Sheehan of The Fresno Bee.

Bitwise has gone dark since then, as its employees and customers scramble to figure out what comes next. Fresno’s mayor said the company hasn’t paid business taxes for 18 months. Bitwise’s Board of Directors fired its co-founders, and the city of Fresno is investigating the company’s finances.

While it’s unclear at this point what went wrong, internal documents obtained by Reid Stone of The San Joaquin Valley Sun revealed that Bitwise was reliant on grants from foundations and local governments and nonprofits. Some observers pointed to the relative dearth of tech sales and repeat customers among its business clients as potential warning signs about financial viability.

“The larger vulnerabilities of the broader business model at Bitwise clearly put all of their workforce at risk,” Kobes says.

Depending on whom you ask, Bitwise practiced a form of hire-train-deploy, a staffing model that’s gaining in popularity. The company last year acquired the Denver-based Techtonic, a relatively high-profile player in the space, which Kobes says was as an early leader with the hire-train-deploy approach for registered apprenticeships in IT.

Some versions of hire-train-deploy are “light coats of paint,” says one industry insider, where a training provider may assign a single employee to tech clients. This scattered approach can result in a “logo soup” of customers but lacks the quality and economic strength of assigning a team of workers who have received custom training to a business partner.

Whatever happened with Bitwise, several experts said recent uncertainty in tech hiring is a challenge for tech bootcamps, particularly those farther down in the food chain or those that overhired during recent boom times.

Kobes says companies like Bitwise can play a useful role as IT employers remain resistant to skills-based hiring and nontraditional paths to tech jobs. They can expose businesses to the value of apprenticeship. And registered apprenticeship programs give participants vetted skills they can use outside of the sponsor company.

“The hire-train-deploy model also means that many Bitwise apprentices were working for clients at other companies,” she says, “which will help build their professional network in an emergency like this one or when they are ready to seek new employment more generally.”

Open Tabs

COVID Cohort
High school seniors say the pandemic greatly affected their college or career choices, and students from low-income families were the most likely to be affected, according to a survey from ACT. The top pandemic-related challenges identified were financial difficulties, changing academic circumstances, doubt about college, and heightened career influences, including a shift in interest away from careers in health care and education.

Career Centers
A survey of 287 college career centers found a median budget increase of 26% over three years, to $418K from $330K, according to a report from Johanna Alonso of Inside Higher Ed. The research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers also found that just 2% of institutions have appointed a vice president of workforce development to lead their career centers, and 3% make that a cabinet-level position.

Social Capital
The top obstacle college students cited in securing a job after graduation is not having a professional network, according to a survey conducted by Parker Dewey, a microinternship platform. Three-quarters of respondents said they spend time looking at job ads, but only for employers they are already familiar with. And more than half (54%) said company videos of employees were not an engaging learning tool.

College Apprenticeships
The City University of New York will expand apprenticeship opportunities for students seeking associate degrees, Ashley Mowreader reports for Inside Higher Ed. CUNY will tap a $2M grant from Kathy Hochul, New York’s Democratic governor, to add 12 credit-bearing apprenticeship programs at 10 CUNY colleges. Employers will pay the apprentices, who will earn college credits for their participation.

Outcomes Research
The Institute for Higher Education Policy is seeking proposals for research papers on the equitable delivery of postsecondary value. The nonprofit group is looking for research that uses student economic outcomes data from the Postsecondary Value Commission’s Equitable Value Explorer. It wants to explore research questions that would be beneficial to policymakers and institutional decision-makers.

Job Moves

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—Paul Fain

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