22 Meet-Ups Reveal Angst Across Communities: California leaders get real about automation, stranded workers and skills

By Van Ton-Quinlivan, Executive Vice Chancellor of Workforce and Digital Futures of California Community Colleges and Kermit Kaleba, Federal Policy Director of National Skills Coalition

Technology and market forces are changing the workplace, the talent needs of employers, and the skills workers need to stay in the game. For example, digital skills have become the new basic skill of the workplace; according to Burning Glass, 80 percent of middle-skill jobs require some digital skills. And the shelf life for those skills is getting shorter. The rapid pace of technological change means that workers need regular skill booster shots — that is, access to reskilling over time — to increase their economic resiliency.

In this climate, a growing segment of “stranded workers” are finding that the market for their skills is disappearing and they aren’t able to access those skill booster shots. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 2.5 million Californians — in the prime working ages of 25 to 34 — are in the economically vulnerable situation of having a high school degree but no industry-valued credential. Within the broader California labor force — age 25 to 65 — more than 8 million adults are in this situation. Across the country, this population stands at more than 31 million, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Over the last four months, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office has met with hundreds of business, workforce, community, civic, labor, and education leaders in 22 community meetings throughout California to hear their insights on the future of work and the economic imperative of helping stranded workers train and retrain for jobs of the 21st century.

Automation is reshaping work and the shelf life of skills

In every community, leaders expressed expectations about disruptions in the workplace from automation. Automation is welcomed when it eliminates unpleasant jobs unwanted by people. But, automation is also reshaping existing jobs and their workflow. The business and economic development leaders shared this loud and clear. Yet, they also articulated which skills will transcend waves of automation.

In the Salinas Valley, Wesley Van Camp, general counsel at Tanimura & Antle, a premium produce grower, said “Technology is not going to replace our employees. They have the soft skills. As the jobs require computer literacy, the jobs will become better jobs.” The company has developed its own training program because classes were not available when its employees were available for training.

In San Bernardino County, the Workforce Development Board’s Business Service Manager shared the story of a robot security guard patrolling the parking structure at a local health care facility. “I saw a couple of people repairing the robot — doing jobs that no doubt pay better than the security guard the robot replaced.”

Reskilling stranded workers: We need local partnerships, support services, and accessible programs

Leaders shared three key strategies for ensuring stranded workers have a way back into the economy.

First and foremost, partnerships between community colleges, community organizations, and industry will be essential, but industry needs to be the leading voice. In the Central Valley, Richard Chapman, president and CEO of the Kern County Economic Development Corporation said, “We won’t be immune to the impact of automation.” But he added that partnerships between industry and colleges to reskill the workforce will be “critical to prepare for the coming disruption.”

Second, access to support services will also be essential. To effectively engage in upskilling, the “stranded worker” population will need a high-support student experience that is culturally appropriate. In the far north of the state, Butte County leaders highlighted the importance of partnering with community-based organizations, who would could help working learners access and navigate support services.

Finally, community leaders emphasized that reskilling opportunities need to be short (less than a semester) and available at accessible times and in accessible formats and platforms. Many “stranded workers” currently can’t retrain because of work and family obligations, scheduling challenges, transportation time to campus and affordability. In addition, about half of them come from Spanish-speaking households.

Solutions: In California and in Washington, D.C.

To address the impact of automation on the workplace, the California Community Colleges are working with the California Economic Summit and its robust regional network as well as others to implement the Strong Workforce Program — a strategic investment to align college programs with the skills needed to prepare Californians for jobs that pay better than minimum wage. In addition to an infusion of $248 million a year, the Strong Workforce Program requires colleges to consult with businesses and align programs and curricula with in-demand jobs within regional economies. Colleges are financially rewarded for increasing student completion and employment.

In addition, to address the particular needs of stranded workers and the issues lifted up by the community leaders in these 22 cities, Governor Brown proposed creating California’s 115th community college — a statewide online college that can reach Californians who need to develop additional skills to rise above minimum-wage jobs and stay ahead of shifts in the economy. The college will offer industry-driven, competency-based pathways that allow students to progress as they master skills. The college will offer start times throughout the year uncoupled from the academic calendar, and classes will be offered during hours when students are able to take them. Students will receive individual and personalized support from success coaches.

California has big plans but can’t do it alone. Leaders in Congress will need to join in the efforts. First and foremost, Congress must update the Higher Education Act to better address the millions of “stranded workers” across the nation and the impact that automation is having on the necessity for constant reskilling. If amended to include oversight and accountability provisions, pending Federal legislation could provide an avenue to address the issues lifted up in California — issues that are being felt in communities across the nation.

The Community College to Career Fund Act includes provisions aimed at supporting local partnerships between industry and community colleges to help ensure reskilling is tied to the needs of local employers. The Gateways to Career Act seeks to provide essential support services to workers balancing work, family, and education. Finally, the JOBS Act includes provisions to update the federal Pell grant student aid program to support the kinds of short-term programs that can address the rapid reskilling pressures caused by automation and the particular needs of working learners. When accompanied by meaningful accountability to ensure colleges and programs are using public funds responsibly, and that a robust oversight structure protects against the abuses of bad actors, these changes will ensure all Americans can gain the knowledge and skills valued by employers, critical to our future economy.

There are a lot of solutions being offered to the perceived impacts of automation, but not all of these solutions are based on the real experiences of business leaders, educators, and other local leaders at the frontlines of workforce and economic development. A growing number of workers are being stranded as their skills lose value. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Business is changing radically and the education system needs to match that radical change. We can change the postsecondary education ecosystem so that it is structured to address changes in the workplace and regional economies. But changing that ecosystem requires true partnerships between states and regions, and among colleges and employers within the regions. It requires the support of both state and federal policy. If we can heed the expertise of local experience and re-tool our approach to re-skilling, our regional economies can thrive, and no worker will be stranded.

Find out more on the National Skills Coalition position on these federal policies here: https://www.nationalskillscoalition.org/