Apodaca: Initiative aims to reinvent community colleges

I've written frequently about the shift toward matching education with job-market demand, a trend that continues to gain momentum.

Whether this change produces a winning record overall depends largely on the effectiveness of individual initiatives just now taking wing.

One of the more intriguing of those experiments is a new California initiative to coordinate for the first time all 112 community colleges throughout the state in an attempt to better align curricula with the most sought-after skills.

This undertaking is being funded by the five-year, $60-million "Doing What Matters for Jobs and the Economy" program, which seeks to identify key high-growth industries, determine what good-paying jobs are available within those sectors, and then adjust areas of study to serve that demand.

"It's very practical," said Steven Glyer, who chairs the Los Angeles-Orange County region, the largest of seven regional consortia established under the program. "But it's hard to do."

Glyer might be familiar to Daily Pilot readers. He formerly directed Newport-Mesa Unified's career-technical education (CTE), which he felt so passionate about that he returned to the district to lead the department even after his formal retirement.

Now his un-retirement continues as he takes on this huge, complex job designed to steer community colleges toward producing highly skilled, desirable workers.

Of course, community colleges can make the case that this has been their mission all along, but this new effort to align them more closely with the needs of the marketplace, if successful, would mark a sea change in the way these schools have traditionally operated.

In short, community colleges are not accustomed to collaborating on a wide scale. In Orange County alone there are four college districts, within which there are many schools with varying governing structures and widely disparate rules and policies. Now they're being asked to reach an unprecedented level of cooperation.

The initiative's aims are also complicated by the sheer enormity of the task, which involves not just coordinating the schools but also enlisting input from industry, government agencies and a vast array of independent entities with stakes in the outcome.

In the first year of the program, Glyer said his main focus has been on identifying all the key players, introducing them to the concept and structuring ways to get all these groups communicating.

"This is an immensely complicated, politically charged environment," Glyer said. "We're asking people to do things they've never done before. We want them all to play in the sandbox together."

One means of organizing this effort into bite-sized chunks has been to assign so-called "navigators," who are responsible for the various industry sectors that are being targeted within each region.

For example, one navigator is the point person for global trade and logistics in Orange County. This individual is responsible for establishing contact with all the businesses in the region that fall into this category, sussing out all the relevant labor market data and analysis, determining the expected job demand for these companies, and identifying the relevant community college programs.

Ultimately, the hope is to redeploy resources to augment or initiate educational programs to better serve these businesses' labor needs.

Glyer also foresees more cooperation with high schools to create seamless sequences of career-oriented education, a vision also reflected in President Obama's new grant program to create hybrid blends of traditional high school with career training and college credit.

In Glyer's view, this effort could include a sort-of CTE version of Advanced Placement courses, or dual high school-community college enrollment. Imagine a student interested in food science, for instance, starting with the necessary course work in high school, continuing on a fluid track in community college, then earning a degree at Cal Poly that would leave the student well-positioned for employment in a growing field.

But Glyer also noted that for many students community colleges are not, and need not be, pathways to four-year institutions. Two-year programs at community colleges can often be designed to lead to successful careers in high-demand fields with good pay.

Indeed, a Brookings Institution report last year found that half of all jobs in fast-growing STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) are available to workers without a four-year degree. These jobs pay an average of $53,000 annually, it said.

And it's not just fresh high-school graduates that Glyer is thinking about in his attempt to reinvent community colleges. Consider the returning veteran seeking to parlay skills learned in the military into private sector work, but who needs some additional coursework to obtain a certain certification. Wouldn't it serve everyone better if a straightforward, streamlined path was available, instead of a frustrating patchwork of study options veterans often encounter?

And what about older workers who find they need new skills to move up the career ladder? Shouldn't we make that process simpler and easier to manage?

All these goals Glyer sees as part of his greater mission, but for now he's pushing hard just to lay the groundwork. After that, the real work will begin.

It helps that Glyer remains the ultimate optimist, blessed with an enviable source of enthusiasm and energy. He fervently believes that we can make education better serve the needs of future generations. Much is riding on such convictions.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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