SALAS: Private colleges critical in filling Stanislaus County skills gap

June 12, 2013 

In May, the California Employment Development Department released monthly unemployment data that included some good news: Stanislaus County's rate of joblessness is going down steadily, declining more than 2 percentage points from the previous year and more than a full percentage point from its 14.5 percent figure in March.

But the overall picture is unsettling: The unemployment rate for the Modesto area is 13.4 percent, among the highest in the United States.

More than 31,600 county residents are still considered unemployed. For months, the area's job growth has come primarily in low-skill and low-wage industries, such as retail and wholesale. Even though the number of jobs is growing, local residents are struggling to get long-term, higher-wage positions.

One of the primary reasons for this is a phenomenon economists refer to as the "skills gap." Employers have jobs available for trained personnel who are ready to work. Unfortunately, many of those looking for jobs don't have the right skills to secure employment.

According to a new report, "Left Out, Left Behind: California's Widening Workforce Training Gap," this skills gap is structural and persistent. "Left Out, Left Behind," which was based on research by Sacramento economists Encina Advisors and commissioned by Corinthian Colleges Inc., found that California's economy is creating good jobs in fields such as health care. But the state higher education system cannot produce nearly enough graduates with the skills to fill them. Even worse, the work force training shortage is projected to continue for the next decade.

Researchers found:

• Over the next decade, 2.45 million Californians will be crowded out of college programs that lead to career- oriented degrees, diplomas and professional certificates.

• The resulting lack of professional skills will deny California workers entry into many high-paying jobs and cost them more than $50 billion in lost personal income.

• The demand for a community college education in California already exceeds capacity by 591,000 full-time students statewide. In half of California's 58 counties, the gap between demand and supply exceeds 40 percent. In seven other counties, the gap is between 25 to 40 percent and in six more, the gap is between 10 and 25 percent.

In Stanislaus County, the 2012-13 data shows a staggering 41.2 percent gap between demand for community college education and available supply, resulting in a projected loss of $891.8 million in personal income over a decade. These are personal and financial costs Stanislaus County cannot accept.

This skills gap is keeping unemployment rates high and is preventing our economy from fully recovering. Unless policy-makers make significant changes to our educational system, aligning education and job training with the job market, our economy will suffer now and in the foreseeable future.

Our policy-makers must discard conventional thinking about the role of postsecondary education and embrace a new model.

In light of the findings in "Left Out, Left Behind," policy-makers must address capacity challenges. Partnerships should be developed between community colleges and career and vocational colleges to ensure that demand for vocational training is met. If our community college system does not have the capacity to educate students who seek greater employment opportunities, local community college campuses should partner with private career colleges to develop inclusive local plans to meet the needs of all students.

Additionally, policy-makers must embrace an educational blueprint that aligns vocational education and training with future employment needs. Career and vocational training should offer courses to meet the needs of local employers in order to develop a well-educated, well-trained work force.

It must also take into account the needs of all types of students, from the four-year university scholar to the part-time student who wants to learn vocational skills for future employment.

The skills gap must be addressed quickly. The impact on our economy and our residents is too serious to ignore.

Salas is campus president of Heald College-Modesto.

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