A New Day One: Reimagining the Community College Post-Pandemic

by Marcia J. Ballinger, Ph.D.

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This century has been best described as the era of uncertainty. From the digital transformation that brought the Cloud, blockchain, cyber security, and big data, to the next generation of workforce and jobs led by semiconductors, automation, and robotics, there continue to be so many drivers and mega trends of the future to monitor. and predict their rippled impact.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it threw yet another change agent into the mix amplified the impact of many others. In the immediate wake of the pandemic, we wanted Lorain County Community College to be a place that promised our students safety, stability, and success. To be this place, we knew we had to dive into the pandemic-related disruptions that were affecting our students and lean into the traits that make community colleges so adaptable in order to quickly combat these disturbances. But more than that we wanted this uncertain time to serve as a catalyst for positive, permanent change. We wanted to reimagine our college post-pandemic, and we began a new day one.

One of the greatest pandemic-related disruptions was within the talent pipeline — one that was already troublesome for employers. The pandemic accelerated Boomer retirements with 2 million retiring early. Between February 2020 and February 2021, 2.4 million women left the workforce. Five million workers transitioned to part-time. And as all these people are leaving the workforce, our unemployment rate grew from 7 million pre-pandemic to 10.4 million today.

The national numbers were overwhelming to say the least. But we took a step back and focused on those we serve — our community. Like all community colleges do, we made our first step towards reimagination by engaging our stakeholders. We held open community forums, division and unit meetings, and external sessions. In total we asked more than 600 individuals variations of two questions: 1) how did the pandemic change what you expect from LCCC and 2) what role can LCCC play to best meet these changing needs?

From these sessions, we heard about the many ways in which our community was depending on LCCC to see the region through the educational and workforce issues that stemmed from the pandemic. Community members reiterated that 2020 was a period of catalytic change and we needed to embrace it. We heard that our Vision 2025 was on target, but we needed to accelerate its impact. Participants told us that more than ever we needed to pay attention to widening gaps in access and success. And when it came to industry, we heard a need to evolve from collaboration to integration faster and better. The insights we gathered drove our multi-faceted and comprehensive post-pandemic response.

One of the greatest opportunities on the horizon for our local workforce is the news that Intel is building its most advanced chip manufacturing operation in the world in our state. But it’s not just one company coming to Ohio; it’s an industry that’s embedding itself in Ohio, creating a Silicon Heartland, and LCCC is ready to help fuel its creation. Through a decade’s worth of preparation, LCCC has become a comprehensive community college nationally recognized for innovative, equity-focused workforce programs with specialization in semiconductors, micro-electromechanical systems, and microelectronic manufacturing.

Inside our 100,000 square feet of education and training center, including class 100, 1,000, and 10,000 clean rooms, we offer a short-term training certificate, one-year certificate, associate degree, and applied bachelor’s degree programs in micro-electromechanical systems. And with student employment and employer needs in mind, these programs are offered with a highly successful, embedded learn and earn internship in partnership with 80 regional companies. And as the supply chain swells as the semiconductor industry takes root in Ohio, our partnerships with industry will grow and our students in the program, who already have a 100 percent job placement rate upon graduation, will reap the benefit.

To accelerate the impact of our existing workforce development programs, we leveraged Federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund dollars to Expand one of our most popular training programs. Our free Fast Track to Employment program, which retrains displaced workers for in-demand fields, grew to more than 65 program areas. So far, more than 1,200 students have been funded through this program, with 70% completing or still enrolled. And of those students in the program, 40% are students of color.

For incoming students, we continued our online offerings, promising their full first year could be spent learning remotely, at home. Our faculty and administrators had worked so hard during the throws of the pandemic to transition courses online, and we did not want to erase this effort. Instead, we built upon it. And, through our wrap-around student support services, we supplemented our at-home promise with a guarantee that no student would go without technology or food at a time when access gaps were widening.

We also began partnering differently with employers, working with them to create customized curriculum that trains employees for their workplace. Along those lines, we expanded our earn and learn programs to place our students into the workforce more quickly and broadened our apprenticeship programs to keep pace with new training and technology requirements.

The pandemic has caused havoc within the American workforce, but what deepens the emotional toll of this disruption is that many people, including those who left altogether or changed careers, regret it. A March 2022 USA Today article found that one in five workers who quit during the past two years wish they hadn’t. And those who started a new job aren’t satisfied for various reasons from loss of work/life balance to role expectations.

Communities around the country are looking to their community colleges for opportunities like these. And community colleges are by far the most attuned to our communities’ needs and the best equipped to build back the workforce that was lost in a way that withstands the changes to come, pandemic-driven and beyond. Let’s embrace the changes we’ve already experienced, lean into our own strength and agility, and give our communities the support they need to thrive. This century is still best described as the era of uncertainty, but with uncertainty comes opportunity and there’s no better time than now to begin a new day one.

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