Community Colleges Creating Brighter Futures for Dislocated Workers
September 2012, Volume 7, Number 9
Editor’s Note: This month’s Innovation Showcase is an excerpt from the League’s report, Community Colleges Creating Brighter Futures for Dislocated Workers: A Report of the Walmart Brighter Futures Project.
Click here to view or download the entire report.
The Walmart Brighter Futures Project features a cooperative effort between the Walmart Foundation and a select group of the nation’s community colleges led by the League for Innovation in the Community College. The League received a $3.5 million grant from the Walmart Foundation in March 2009 to implement a project involving community colleges across the country for two purposes: to help dislocated workers acquire 21st century job skills and obtain jobs that require those skills; and to increase academic progression, retention, and completion rates for dislocated workers.
Eight community colleges (see below) were selected through an RFP process that required local community colleges to define a project plan that would best serve the needs of dislocated workers in their service area. Participating colleges accepted the challenges of the project, believing that dislocated workers equipped with 21st century skills, additional education and training, and job search resources would be more attractive and accessible to employers who are increasingly concerned about their ability to remain competitive and profitable. What was not known or predicted in 2009 was that the U.S. economy would continue to struggle, leading to additional job layoffs and high unemployment rates. These conditions created high demand for community college services but significant challenges for job placement.
Despite the challenges, during a brief two-year period, the eight colleges established and implemented their plans. In doing so, they reinforced the community college reputation as responsive to the needs of our nation’s workforce and demonstrated that, through innovative practices, these institutions can react in ways that serve the specific economic needs of their service areas.
This report provides insights into eight areas of the United States, including what worked in each area to meet the overall project goals. A brief overview is provided, along with a more detailed description of select effective practices at the participating colleges.
Innovation Reaps Success
Although the efforts of the eight participating colleges varied, each institution developed innovative ways to better serve the growing number of dislocated workers. Colleges consistently reported higher retention and completion rates by students in the Walmart Brighter Futures Project than other populations of students. When comparing project participant outcomes to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, overall project student retention was 57 percent greater than the national community college average, and completion rates were 2.6 times greater than the national average.
A great deal of project attention was focused on identifying ways that this mature adult, disenfranchised, and often desperate population could be better served by community colleges. While responsive, community colleges have become large, complex organizations with policies and procedures geared more to recent high school graduates than to returning adults. Project colleges formed comprehensive task forces to investigate how to make enrollment, financial aid, job search, and training more adaptable to dislocated workers.
Project requirements included collaboration with other agencies and employers to serve dislocated workers. The eight colleges found ways to leverage project funds to expand and enhance services for dislocated workers. They also worked diligently to ensure that training programs coincided with job availability in their service area. Improved communication among the colleges, employers, and other agencies was realized. Dislocated workers were able to access a vast array of training programs offered by participating colleges, including, for example, business management, accounting and bookkeeping, information systems, computer science, pharmacy technician, medical coding and billing, food service management, advanced manufacturing, patient care technician, nursing, hybrid electric vehicle technician, sheet metal assembler, certified nursing assistant, medical office assistant, energy management, residential weatherization technician, and drafting.
Although these accomplishments are laudable in the short term, the project was designed to cultivate innovative practices that would lead to increased success by dislocated workers in the community college. Perhaps the project evaluator, Alan D. Degner, put it best:
The key to inspiring innovation is creating an environment that fosters trust and honest exchange rather than competition, and the Walmart Brighter Futures Project did just that. Eight Project Directors became mentors to each other and to interested colleges across the nation. They openly shared their successes and their missteps so that others could accomplish as much as possible within the short duration of the grant. While their initial achievements are significant, it is through the continuation of this sharing that the project will reach its true success.
A Universal Aha
A major factor in the success of the Walmart Brighter Futures Project was the provision of additional services to dislocated workers through navigators, coaches, or counselors who were dedicated to five key strategies: recruitment, case management, career advising and workshops, funding, and tracking. Adults experiencing the traumatic effects of job loss need assistance in many ways, from just plain hand holding to using technology in identifying the correct next job. The use of these mentors was consistently found to contribute to student success.
As an example, the project led to a major change in the way Cuyahoga Community College provides services to returning workers. The change can be described as follows:
The new structure is a simple organization design focused on two deliverables: career development/job coaching and proactive employer outreach. The services will be centralized across the entire district with Career Development and Transition Centers at each campus staffed with career services specialists who will meet one-on-one with dislocated workers, providing immediate feedback and job search assistance as well as providing group workshops.
This example is by no means foreign to other colleges in the project, whose leaders noted that a case management style works well for dislocated workers in that it provides individual attention as well as a group process to help the students adjust to new surroundings and perhaps a new life.
Sustainability. Each college in the project was asked to develop plans to continue, as much as possible, the changes and services brought about as a result of the project. Given that most community colleges are being squeezed between unsurpassed enrollment demands and major budget cuts, any plans to continue grant-funded activities beyond the funding period are somewhat unlikely unless there is a measurable advantage to continuing all or some aspects. It appears that the project attributes of higher retention and completion rates for dislocated workers are being considered favorably in future college activities and budgets. In their final reports, several colleges indicated that major changes brought about during the project will enhance or replace existing practices. Some colleges have allocated budget funding to continue new activities and others are using project experiences to change existing intake, admissions, and case management practices.
Project Results by the Numbers
8,383 dislocated workers were directly served* by the project.
3,327 (38%) entered credentialed job training, and others took advantage of the other project direct services.*
Of the 3,327 that entered credentialed job training, 1,866 (56%) completed their training programs during the project. Additionally, 960 dislocated workers who began credentialed training during the project are expected to complete training.
Of the dislocated workers who completed training programs, 906 (48.5%) were employed full time during the project timeline; several recent graduates were still seeking employment when the project ended.
About half of those employed reported they took jobs at lower wages than they made prior to layoff.
1,147 dislocated workers were awarded Walmart Brighter Futures Project financial stipends totaling nearly $1 million.**
$3.2 million was leveraged by project colleges through cash and in-kind funding from local foundations, government programs, and employers.
* Direct service includes activities involved in intake, job readiness skills, financial assistance, and credentialed job training.
** Colleges were required to allocate almost 20 percent of project funding for financial stipends awarded directly to dislocated workers.
College Approaches to Creating Brighter Futures
Brief descriptions of the approaches colleges took to this work are provided here; for additional information, view or download the full report at www.league.org/brighterfutures.
Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the largest financial centers in the U.S., experienced large numbers of financial industry layoffs during the economic downturn. CPCC established a Career Professionals Center designed to serve these dislocated workers and complement the existing dislocated worker program. Because of the new center’s success in serving dislocated workers, it will continue to operate beyond the grant.
Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, established Development and Transitions Centers on each of its campuses. The college staffed these centers with individuals holding human services skills to serve as career transition consultants. This approach was so successful it led to a major overhaul of the student service area of the college.
Lane Community College (LCC) in Eugene, Oregon, has a rich history of effective dislocated worker training programs. LCC built on that success by helping to increase the technology skills of dislocated workers, thus empowering them to access the many Web tools available to assist in career planning, job search, and career mapping.
Miami Dade College in Miami, Florida, established its first Back to Work Center for the college district. The center provided services such as financial assistance to dislocated workers. Midway through the project, a need for more short-term job skills training became evident. Given the volume of service occupations in the area, medical and financial programs were emphasized.
Moraine Valley Community College in suburban Chicago, Illinois, provided targeted services such as intake, in-depth assessment, career planning, remedial and vocational training, job placement assistance to dislocated workers, and services specifically designed to attract and assist military veterans.
Seattle Community Colleges in Seattle, Washington, opted to develop improved services for dislocated workers across the college district. A web-based financial-aid assessment tool was created that allows prospective students to determine their preliminary funding eligibility for workforce training, and education planning and orientation sessions were established across the college system.
Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, chose to supplement its very successful existing programs for dislocated workers through five key strategies: recruitment, case management, career advising/workshops, funding, and tracking. Project data clearly show higher retention and completion rates for those receiving these services compared to students who were not involved in the project.
St. Louis Community College in St. Louis, Missouri, used project grant funds with other funding sources to establish navigators at each of their colleges. The navigators worked with dislocated workers on admissions, financial assistance, career search and application, and worker training. The college reports that these services were welcomed and extremely helpful to dislocated workers.
For more information about the Walmart Brighter Futures Project, visit www.league.org/brighterfutures.