Skip to content

ACT Newsroom & Blog

Hide All News & Blogs View All News & Blogs

How Community Colleges Are Addressing Shifting Workforce Trends

By: Dr. Kristie Fisher, president, Kirkwood Community College

In recognition of Community College Month in April, ACT asked Kirkwood Community College President Dr. Kristie Fisher about some of the most pressing issues facing these institutions and their students – and how those problems are being addressed. Dr. Fisher is a former senior director at ACT, and ACT supports the academic success of Kirkwood students as part of the ACT Scholars Program, an endowed scholarship that emphasizes students from populations for which the cost of higher education could have presented a significant barrier to college.

Read on to learn from Dr. Fisher about how community colleges are addressing shifting workforce trends while focusing on students’ career and education aspirations.

A new report detailed community college enrollment growth of 2.6% – about 118,000 students – particularly at colleges focusing on vocational programs. How does this trend reflect students' increased focus on immediate employability following college graduation?

There has been a growing national discussion about the value of a college degree. A lot of the debate centers around the perception that the types of jobs graduates get do not justify the cost of an education. Some favor on-the-job training instead of college. Others advocate for short-term training or industry-specific career and technical (CTE) programs that focus more on what a person will do in the field than subjects that have less to do with their duties once employed.

Recent polls confirm that one of the primary reasons students attend college is to get a good job. The community college’s duty is to design and deliver programs that help students reach that goal. CTE programs appeal to those seeking the specialized skills needed to go right into the workforce in a field that guarantees a good wage, often in half the time it takes to get a four-year degree. These programs are typically designed with local employers who ensure the curriculum aligns with skills graduates will need. They embed work-based and experiential learning to give students the real work experiences necessary to be successful immediately upon employment.

For students and parents who are rightfully mindful of the cost of higher education and want to ensure a return on investment, community colleges are a smart choice.

Why and how are community colleges encouraging students to pursue a degree following vocational training?

Many institutions, including Kirkwood, are working on developing pathways for students with non-credit credentials and training to take what they've learned and easily transition to credit programs to pursue a degree. One way to do that is to design courses on both the non-credit and credit sides of the institution with the same or similar outcomes in their curriculum. This way, a student's non-credit credential can count as credit toward a particular degree, decreasing time to graduation.

Despite the belief in some circles that a college degree is not worth the cost, it's well-known that college graduates have a higher earning potential. Tuition is also significantly less expensive at community colleges.

There are many variables that can prevent someone from moving from a short-term training program to a credit degree program. However, if colleges continue to make these pathways easier and more prevalent, a greater number of students may choose to pursue a degree following their training.

A recent, much-discussed report from the Burning Glass Institute and Strada Education Foundation found that most college graduates are entering jobs that don’t align with their degrees and are working in a field other than the one they’ve studied. How can community colleges help ensure that students can secure employment that aligns with their degrees and career goals?

Over time, the job market fluctuates due to a number of factors, including regional employer needs, the economy, technological advancements, and even the number and quality of applicants in a particular field. Considering these factors, college administrators need to ensure their programs meet the needs of the local workforce, while also adapting to industry changes and advancements.

At Kirkwood we do this in two primary ways. First, our faculty maintain strong ties to industry and their disciplines. They are actively engaged in keeping their skills and approaches at the cutting edge of their field. Second, all of our academic programs use advisory committees comprising professionals from our local business and industry partners, who advise us on our curriculum to ensure it meets their needs. This combination of faculty experts and business and industry partners ensures that students have the knowledge and skills to succeed in their fields, and employers know Kirkwood graduates can do their jobs.

The workforce landscape is changing with the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and other technological advancements, and older workers are seeking opportunities to reskill. How are community colleges evolving to meet this demand?

AI will soon affect all aspects of our lives. There are several academic disciplines that are already using AI. The sooner people get acclimated to using AI, the better they are going to be at their job in the long run.

As time goes on, more and more academic disciplines will use AI to their advantage. This will not only aid in teaching, but also prepare students to use AI in their careers. It will span both credit and non-credit programs and will apply to all students – regardless of age. This will allow people of all ages and experiences to have the tools necessary to succeed in the workforce.

Dr. Fisher is a graduate of Kirkwood and an accomplished higher education leader with years of experience in helping students of all ages reach their academic goals. A dedicated and passionate public servant, she came to Kirkwood after having led the Iowa Valley Community College District as its president since 2019.