Retraining Workers for the Future Economy

610 200 Sarah Bohn

(Photo Credit: Los Angeles Trade-Technical College)

Originally Published on PPIC Viewpoints

As the economy continues to shift toward computers and digital technology—and braces for a potential future with more robots—workers have been called upon to adapt and learn new skills. New industries and new kinds of jobs may lead to economic growth, but whether these gains are shared by all of California’s workers depends critically on their retraining. And that retraining, in turn, depends on the ability of educational institutions to also adapt to new labor market needs.

While workers can sometimes learn new skills on the job or on their own, other times retraining means obtaining a new credential and returning to the classroom. That’s especially true for people who work in technical industries that are being reshaped by forces like routinization, automation, and outsourcing.

California’s higher education system has an important role to play in delivering retraining options. The state’s community colleges are the primary provider, with hundreds of programs in skilled trades and applied sciences and technologies. Notably, community colleges offer retraining options at a much lower cost to students than do private for-profit two-year colleges, another major provider. In addition, many community college programs show substantial economic returns for students—especially in health professions.

Effective retraining through the state’s colleges would help ensure that all Californians are productive and self-sufficient, which would benefit not just families but also employers and the state economy. However, the current model of higher education was largely built for 18-year-old, first-time freshmen and does not necessarily work for older, returning students, who are almost certainly balancing training with career, family, and other demands.

Flexible course scheduling—for example, through online courses or “distance” education—is one way to better reach workers. California’s community colleges are the clear leader in offering online options. PPIC research has highlighted some limitations to online training and outlined ways to improve student outcomes. Online courses for technical programs may require additional innovation, especially those that require hands-on training. Governor Brown’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018–19 includes funding for a fully online community college that has the potential to bring innovation to how retraining opportunities (and educational opportunities, broadly speaking) are offered to Californians.

For individuals or training programs not amenable to online options, expanding course offerings near job centers is key. Cal State Los Angeles’s satellite campus in downtown LA aims to do exactly this. Information about the job market is also crucial—and California’s community colleges have taken a big step in the right direction by providing easily accessible information on the labor market outcomes of different colleges and programs across the state.

Retrained workers may pursue all kinds of new skills, but career technical programs, most of which are in community colleges, are particularly important because they offer short-term credentials in industry-relevant fields. Efforts to make career technical programs more flexible—through, for example, online courses, convenient locations, and partnerships with employers—are critical to filling student, employer, and state needs in a rapidly changing workplace.

Sarah Bohn is a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and the PPIC Higher Education Center


Sarah Bohn

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