As you read this the election is over and you know the outcome of all of the key races. As I write this it is still election day and I will soon go to my local polling place and vote. However, I wanted to take a few minutes and talk about something that has been a key discussion/debating point in our national political conversation and that is the issue of jobs.
We’ve heard many politicians and working people talk about the need to bring back our jobs. The argument seems to be about turning back the clock to remake the American industrial sector, along with its job opportunities, the way it was 20 or 30 years ago. I get it. People see manufacturing plants close, others with massive layoffs, and still others moving out of the country. This has resulted in many displaced workers, underemployment, and unemployment; leaving many workers today with a feeling of hopelessness –especially in turbulent economic times that we’ve experienced over the last decade.
Many of us in the community college world know the issue is more complicated than it’s often portrayed. The most fundamental cause of the loss of manufacturing jobs is not companies abandoning US manufacturing; rather it’s the growth of technology. Analysts have said that even if we had the same number of manufacturing plants operating in the US today that we had 20 years ago there would still be up to 40% less jobs available due to the advent of robotics and other technology processes that have replaced the human worker.
Our goal as community college professionals, working with our private sector partners, is not to remake the past. Rather, we need to imagine the future. The opportunity we have is to help prepare our communities for the industries, economies, and workforce needs that are just beginning to make themselves known. Almost everywhere I travel I’m hearing about alternative energy, bio-technology, advanced manufacturing, health care, aerospace, and many more industries promising substantial future growth. Our mandate is not just to prepare our students for today’s jobs. We need to be full partners in the economic and workforce development efforts aimed at the emerging growth sectors.
We have another challenge as well—a challenge that has only grown larger over the last decade. As I conduct community summits on behalf of community colleges across the country, I hear directly from industry leaders about the need for our graduates to have more and better soft skills, creative thinking skills to match rapid changes in the nature of work, more leadership ability, and certainly more entrepreneurship skills. Employers note that these skills are as important as the technical skills that make up the core of our career and technical curricula.
As I see it, our challenge, then, is twofold. We not only have to be full partners with business and industry in helping to grow new industrial and job opportunities within our communities, but we also have to position our programs and services to help create the worker of tomorrow with the skills to adapt to rapidly changing technologies and workplace needs of the future.
No, we will not be able to bring back all of yesterday’s jobs. But, with our commitment to regional partnership and constant curricular reform we can help create job opportunities for the future.