Fresno Future of Work MeetUp turns focus to proposed online community college

580 200 Ed Coghlan

Fresno City Council President Esmeralda Soria (left) talks with Van Ton-Quinlivan, executive vice chancellor of the California Community Colleges at Future of Work MeetUp in Fresno. (Photo Credit: City of Fresno)

The last of nearly two dozen meetings to discuss the future of work in California was held in Fresno last week. But the important discussion on how to better train the state's workforce ahead of disruption from automation and other technology will continue.

Fresno City Council President Esmeralda Soria told the group of employers, educators and workforce professionals who gathered at Bitwise Industries in Fresno, “We must invest in education and training to build a middle class in our region.”

She pointed out that Fresno and the Central Valley have pockets of extreme poverty and that the proposed statewide online community college must “fit the needs we have here in the Valley.”

For Van Ton-Quinlivan, executive vice chancellor of the California Community Colleges, the Fresno meeting was similar in many ways to the many hours she has spent listening to people about the online college.

“Over and over again, people have expressed the support for the proposal, but say 'You have to get it right',” she said. “It is being designed to be flexible, affordable, easy to navigate and, most importantly, effective.”

Fresno Business Council CEO Deb Nankivell is enthusiastic about the idea of a statewide online community college and acknowledged that not everyone is.

“It is a terrific idea that needs to be better understood by people,” said Nankivell. “It's not meant to replace. It's meant to enhance and add value where there are gaps.”

The narrative of economic mobility was prominent during the two-hour session. One person from the California Public Utilities Commission pointed out that many of the communities in the Central Valley still have a poor internet connection — or none at all — which holds back the region. Another member from the regional Workforce Investment Board pointed out the need for more skilled manufacturing workers.

Nankivell echoed the opportunity that exists in the manufacturing sector in the Central Valley “if we can align education and economic interests.”

Nankivell and other regional leaders across California have contributed work to the California Economic Summit, which is building strategies that can deliver on equitable, sustainable and prosperous opportunity for every community.

The Summit's Elevate CA effort is aimed at addressing the 18 million Californians who live in or near poverty by developing a public strategy for reviving economic opportunity and resilience in all of California.

Many of those 18 million are working in jobs that are not paying a living wage in a state that boasts the world's fifth largest economy.

Bridging the skills gap—which is widening as our economy moves faster than its ability to produce workers to sustain it—is the focus of the Community College system, which has expanded its Strong Workforce Program to further invest in workforce preparation.

The anticipated result is more cooperation between employers and educators to make sure that the preparation students are receiving in the colleges is what employers want.

For Fresno City Council President Soria that's exactly what's needed.

“I hope the community colleges will continue to improve their collaboration with local employers to tailor curriculum and course offerings that will address the needs of our workforce.”

The statewide online community college proposal is designed to reach the worker who has been “stranded” by technology and whom the current system hasn't been able to reach because they either don't have time to commute to school because of family and work obligations or simply because they live too far away.

“The online college is being designed to let students go as fast as they want, with flexible start times to earn an industry valued credential, ” said Van Ton-Quinlivan.

There are 2.5 million stranded workers under the age of 35 and over 8 million in total in California. For Governor Brown and others who support the statewide online community college the idea is that this more flexible approach to competency-based education can help many of them realize the California Dream.


Ed Coghlan

All stories by: Ed Coghlan