Silicon Valley town hall calls for strong workforce to keep tech boom going

150 150 John Guenther

Marshall Alameida, Dean of Health Sciences at College of Marin addresses the Silicon Valley Strongworkforce Town Hall Tuesday. (Photo Credit: John Guenther)

Outside a town hall on workforce issues yesterday, the cars crawling along nearby Silicon Valley freeways might actually have been considered a “glass half full” scenario. It meant more people going to work.

“While we don’t love the traffic, we actually hope it continues that way, right?” joked Christine Leong Connors, market manager at J.P. Morgan Private Bank.

The workforce needs of the tech capital of California are certainly different from other regions, but one theme in an ongoing series of regional workforce town halls has been the same everywhere: schools and industry need to collaborate much more to help keep that prosperity going and spreading to all regions.

The California Community Colleges are putting on the Town Halls as part of a task force assembled to ask and answer the question of how to get the state’s workforce trained in the right skills to be most employable for good-paying, in-demand jobs of tomorrow.

“We also know that closing this skills gap is a means towards achieving that great economic opportunity and prosperity for everybody,” said Leong Connors.

With the tech boom continuing, as could be seen by that traffic outside, one would think boosting tech curriculum would be front and center. And the community colleges located in every region of the state, including the Silicon Valley, are seen as key to that.

“We’ve really recognized the need for broad access to technology certification programs as a pathway to provide students and workers with a path forward to high-paying jobs of tomorrow,” said Brian Bratonia, an education sales director at Microsoft, which hosted the event at their Mountain View campus. “Ten years ago, there were less than 50,000 technology certifications issued by the community college system [nationally]. Today that number has grown to over 750,000 annually.”

But most important for the employers, higher education and other interested parties at the town hall was just emphasizing the need for stronger connections between the local schools and industry to craft curricula that are teaching the right skills for the big sectors in that region.

“I don’t think that it’s the responsibility solely of the community colleges to address this issue,” said Chancellor Linda Thor of the nearby Foothill-De Anza Community College District. “Rather this has to be a collaboration among employers and government agencies, nonprofits, and the education system, as well as labor.”

The town halls in Los Angeles and Fresno came to the same big conclusion. And the stakes couldn’t be much higher in terms of getting workers ready for jobs that are coming.

“Sixty-five percent of job openings in the U.S. require some postsecondary education,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, the Vice Chancellor for Workforce and Economic Development at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. “We need a million more bachelor’s degrees, but we also need a million sub-baccalaureate. So some college is the new gateway into the workforce. And we will fall short by a million. And that’s our work today, to figure out how do we close this gap.”

The “some college” category includes certificates, associate’s degrees and industry-recognized credentials in high-skill jobs in career technical education (CTE) fields.

“The number one thing that we saw that indicated a successful [CTE] program was the number of industry connections that you have in general,” said Patrick Cushing, CEO of Workhands, a career network for skilled trade workers. “It didn’t matter how deep they were but, having all of these connections meant you got more feedback, more students were hired, you had more of that conversation.”

Including creating those connections, the audience was asked to identify the most important actions the community colleges need to take to meet the needs of the regional economy.

While training for tech and other skills was important to the Silicon Valley crowd, several stressed the need for soft skills, like interviewing, to make graduates more employable, and also the need for personal development skills. Eric Edelstein, CIO for Nelson Companies, a staffing firm, suggested having a required course at community colleges to help students manage their career.

“Folks we talk to seem like lost sheep,” said Edelstein. “So, I love the fact that we’re training for skills. I do not think that we are successfully training them for a career.”

Chancellor Thor brought up the great challenge lurking in the conversation, which is funding for the needed CTE programs. Since the state funds community colleges on a per full-time student basis, CTE classes are hard to expand as they are more expensive to offer, compared to a class which only needs an instructor and books.

“The amount of money for full-time equivalent students is the same whether we are teaching history or whether we are teaching nursing or advanced manufacturing,” said the chancellor. “[Schools] are disincentived to offer the high-cost programs because, when we spend money on the high cost, we’ve got to reduce it some place else.”

Other suggestions included literally connecting students with industry to get them working while they’re still in the programs, like what happens in “earn and learn” models of other states and countries.

“We really have to look at how we’re funded right now and what we’re asking of our students,” said Carla Mays, a civic innovation advisor. “Our students can’t pay any more money. They’re in too much debt and we don’t have a direct pipeline for them to have a job when they get out. Our students are behind the curve because they’re not involved in the industry right away. We really have to rethink our model.”

These Town Hall meetings will continue this month as part of the Task Force on Workforce, Job Creation and a Strong Economy created by the Community Colleges’ Board of Governors. The next town hall session will be held in Sacramento on Monday, March 16 and the series concludes in San Diego on Wednesday, March 18.

The Task Force next meets again on April 2 in Sacramento. Task Force members are knowledgeable leaders from across the community college system, the business community, labor, public agencies involved in workforce training, community based organizations, K-12 policy, and other groups. They will review the input from the Town Hall meetings and begin to consider strategies and recommend policies and practices to the Community Colleges Board of Governors this fall. 

“This is quite a window of opportunity in California,” said John Melville, the event moderator and President and COO of Collaborative Economics. “Yes, our funding is coming back. Yes, there are more opportunities but that means there’s more imperative to do things differently. Clearly there needs to be a stronger partnership between industries, the business community in California and its community colleges.”


John Guenther

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