Employers and educators are working hard in Kentucky and across the country to create and sustain a world-class workforce. People are looking for efficient and affordable ways to access education, from job skills certificates to advanced degrees. Work-ready communities are increasing, chambers of commerce are on board, and everybody talks about ensuring young people are "college and career ready."
The UpskillAmerica Summit, hosted by the White House in April, brought together industry, union, training, education and foundation leaders. Bluegrass Community and Technical College was included because of our reputation for industry support.
We are known particularly for joining Toyota and other regional manufacturers in creating the Advanced Manufacturing Technician program.
"Upskilling" is the new term for moving through levels of skill development to prepare for the next step in a career. Corporate staffing professionals at the summit gave the community colleges our due as skilled workforce providers, but they also challenged us to do better.
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And we agree we should. There are a number of ways BCTC is already working to put more people in the "upskilling" pipeline.
First, summit attendees insisted, all career and technical programs should be competency-based. It surprised me that they did not know that, for more than 40 years, technical and career programs at community colleges have been structured around competencies identified by local employers.
The programs at BCTC are designed to reflect job skills employers tell us they need. Our challenge is to keep course content up to date as the workplace environment, job requirements and technologies change.
A second common comment was that entrepreneurs and even mature corporations don't care about college credits. Businesses want some way to assess employees' skills, and those can't be determined based on holding a certain credential. If credentials are earned, attendees said, they should include industry-based certifications.
My response: Let's give students both competencies and credits. We should be encouraging students, especially at the entry level, to get credits that can eventually transfer for further education.
Two-year graduates may decide, a few years after getting that good first job, that they want more education. Employers may see potential in those with certificates or associate degrees and support their return to college. Their earlier credits should then transfer to a bachelor's program. Kentucky has created transfer options that allow for easy transfer of credits.
Well-crafted skills pathways include steps toward credentials by giving students stackable and embedded certificates indicating marketable skills while they work toward a two-year degree or a bachelor's degree.
Also, let's give students opportunities to get credit for prior learning — whether through corporate training programs or on-the-job learning.
Another consistent theme at the summit was the importance of what they called "essential skills." Also labeled workplace skills or soft skills, they are usually defined as things like communication, teamwork, dependability, interpersonal skills and professional behaviors that make workplaces run well and that are needed in an office, on a production floor, or in a service industry.
We want all our graduates to be that first-rate employee who is dedicated and can help a company grow. So, we incorporate essential skills along with career competencies.
Community colleges pride ourselves on serving our two main constituencies — the individual student who needs a good start to their bachelor's degree or career field, and the employer who wants a well-educated employee, in both career and essential skills.
At BCTC, we have many challenges to help students of all ages become the workforce of tomorrow. It is important that we remember our commitment and continue to seek education, government and corporate partners who agree.