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Each of the 21 regional partnerships features at least one community college or technical training school.
Community colleges are big winners in a federal program that aims to spark regional economic development and train workers in emerging industries.
The Build Back Better Regional Challenge will allocate a total of $1 billion to 21 regional coalitions across the U.S. The partnerships include research universities, state and local governments, business and industry groups, nonprofits, labor unions and—in every case—at least one community college or technical training school.
In announcing the winners earlier this month, President Joe Biden highlighted the role of community colleges in training workers to compete in emerging industries and building more equitable communities, two of the challenge's primary goals. He cited a winning project in Georgia that will receive $65 million to speed up the adoption of artificial intelligence across a variety of sectors. The Georgia AI Manufacturing Coalition is led by Georgia Tech but also includes historically Black colleges such as Spelman College and local technical training colleges.
"Technology experts will provide workers who are interested in four- to six-week hands-on training that can make all the difference in their employment,'' Biden said. "Think of a poultry farmer who might never have had a chance to learn how ... artificial technology can help manage inventory or improve safety and quality while increasing their productivity. Think of a family-owned paper manufacturer that could never have afforded trying out cutting-edge technologies, but now they’re going to be able to. And they’re going to be able to grow their businesses. And they can do it without ever leaving their home or their families. This is a game-changer."
The challenge was designed to reflect Biden’s belief that the economy ought to be built not from the top down but from the “bottom up and middle out,’’ said Alejandra Castillo, U.S. assistant secretary of Commerce for economic development.
“We embedded … the requirement of equity, and that meant bringing voices to the table that are diverse and inclusive,’’ Castillo said. “We want to provide ladders of opportunity.”
The nation’s 1,044 community and technical colleges are the vehicles for those opportunities, said Scott Andes, program lead for the Build Back Better Regional Challenge. "Community colleges really are the front door” for training workers to fill jobs in biotechnology, clean energy and manufacturing, he added.
Community colleges may conjure the image of a student working toward an associate’s degree in a traditional field such as nursing or business but many of these institutions also provide non-degree certificate programs in fields such as cybersecurity, automation and advanced manufacturing.
“What a lot of people don't know is that community colleges are also tasked with workforce development,” said Martha Parham, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges. “Within that, there are thousands of career and technical education programs. They continue to be a really important cog in the workforce pipeline.”
The regional challenge aims to provide new opportunities to workers in communities that are grappling with persistent poverty and economic decline. The Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative is typical of winning applicants in that its a coalition that includes a top-tier research institution–in this case, Carnegie-Mellon University–along with a host of public and private partners. The group will receive $62.7 million to develop the robotics industry and bring 17,250 direct jobs to 11 urban and rural counties around Pittsburgh that have been hard hit by the transition away from coal.
Biden, at the news conference announcing the Build Back Better challenge winners, asked Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian about the partnership.
“Talk to me about the sort of coordination between a great national university like yours and a community college in your community,’’ said Biden, whose wife, Jill Biden, teaches English at a community college in Virginia.
Community colleges, Jahanian said, will play a key role in “upskilling and reskilling” the workforce.
“We’re working with community colleges, we’re working on curriculum development, we’re working on various ways that we can bring along the workers and retrain them and upskill them to be ready for these new jobs that are going to be created,’’ he told Biden. “The coordination with community colleges, with labor unions, especially in our poor, urban areas …[in] the 11 counties that surround us is part of our mission and what we’re committed to.”
Parham, the spokeswoman for the community college association, said it makes sense that community colleges would be vital players in the effort to train workers for jobs of the future.
“It’s about more than having a student come out of a program with their degree or certificate and getting a job,’’ she said. “It’s really about taking a step back and looking at it from a higher level and understanding what the workforce pipeline looks like in that community, in that region, and how they can keep that workforce pipeline flowing, attracting new businesses and attracting people to live in those communities. They’re not just training students for jobs, they’re training students for jobs that will enable them to stay in the local area.
“Community colleges,’’ Parham added, “are at the nexus of education, workforce and community, so it makes absolute sense they would be heavily invested in this kind of work.’’
Daniela Altimari is a reporter at Route Fifty.
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