College chancellor on bid to combat Silicon Valley prosperity gap

150 150 John Guenther

(photo credit: Patrick Nouhailler)

The Silicon Valley is almost a microcosm of the “two Californias,” where some regions are booming on the coast while some inland regions are still struggling years after the Great Recession “ended.” But a local community college chancellor sees opportunity for the region in a new $250 million, linked learning competitive grant.

“Silicon Valley is probably thought by most to be a wealthy sector,” said Rita Cepeda, chancellor of the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District. “But there is another Silicon Valley where there’s a great number of working poor and underprepared individuals. I happen to like the fact that our district serves those zip codes.”

While not a silver bullet, those in workforce development see hope in linking curriculum to careers in fields that are growing in their particular region, like healthcare and career technical fields that are in demand as older workers retire.

Community colleges are increasingly playing a role in the movement to present to students more well-defined career paths which make it more likely they’ll make it all the way to a degree or certificate and a good-paying job at the end.

There’s always been this notion of preparing for the world of work but it’s been increasingly targeted to emerging careers and furthermore to the regional economies and what they particularly need,” said Cepeda.

As part of the rollout of a career pathway grant competition architected by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, the district along with their partners will submit a bid to win three-year grants awarded to education districts which collaborate with industry and civic groups.

Cepeda said the district’s application will involve working with surrounding unified school districts and high schools to expand current career pathways and build new paths, using one of the 40 planned grants, 10 of which could be up to $15 million.

Granted, the state has a complicated employment picture and many will point out stats showing there are more applicants than jobs out there, but studies and employer surveys have shown there really is a “skills gap” in California, where available jobs sometimes don’t line up with workers’ skills.

Thus the movement to align curriculum with industry data, especially in community colleges, which sit in an advantageous position to help, one reason being they’re in every region of the state.

“Community colleges deliver the workforce that our regions and employers need to support businesses in our state’s pursuit of advanced manufacturing, in our community’s ability to deliver quality healthcare, and in helping our small businesses expand thru knowledge of how to access to capital,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan Vice Chancellor of Workforce and Economic Development of California’s Community Colleges.

Quinlivan says that the median wage of students who went through vocational programs in community colleges is $68,000 five years after graduation, compared to in the thirties for non-vocational programs.

Cepeda added that a high school diploma is not enough these days and some post-secondary education is needed to get ahead. Some of the region’s growth industries the district has been targeting are information communication technology, mobile apps, big data, healthcare, construction management, and boutique manufacturing.

Linked learning advocates argue that algebra, chemistry and other subjects can be taught in ways in the economic interests of students and the state as a whole, while the students’ learning experience can remain well-rounded.

“Don’t just spend our workforce development dollars on remediating failure, but begin giving the 9th graders, the 10th graders, not only the education…but integrate it with the career pathways that they’re interested in,” Steinberg said in November at the 2013 California Economic Summit. “There’s no reason why we cannot give young people that early apprenticeships, mentorships, assistance once they graduate and ultimately a job in the in the pathway that they choose.”

The deadline for the grant application is March 28 and the winners will be notified in May. All of the Career Pathways grants will have to be spent by 2018.

When asked about accountability and longevity concerns surrounding the grant, Cepeda pointed out that measuring results, already a sizeable movement in education, is built into the process and that applicants will have to demonstrate how their changes to career curriculum planning will be institutionalized long term.

“The idea is not just to transform for the sake of performing for the grant but to transform your own curriculum development process,” said Cepeda. “It’s what you have to do because it’s part of your mission and your educational structure.”

Just one piece of solving California’s economic puzzle is making sure the workforce is prepped for the growing industries in all regions, one of them being Silicon Valley where California’s strengths and opportunity are juxtaposed next to residents who are struggling.

“I think in general it will be great for all Californians but my thinking is it will also have a good effect on diminishing the number of students of color who drop out because they fail to see a rhyme or reason or be motivated in terms of a real need which they always face which is ‘How do I survive’ and ‘What is my financial future?’,” said Cepeda.

Partly because of this growing consensus across the state about educational alignment with regional needs and workforce needs, the California Economic Summit marked workforce as one of its priority issues and why it has put such emphasis on ideas and solutions bubbling up from the state’s regions.

If you want to keep track of the Workforce Action Team and see the where they’re focusing efforts, head over to the Summit’s Progress Tracker page.

Check out our interview at the 2013 California Economic Summit with Senate pro tem Darrell Steinberg on linked learning:


John Guenther

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