My company Viridis Learning hosted our first annual Education & Technology Summit at Los Angeles Mission College in Southern California. Some of the top minds from these disciplines convened at this event, including former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, former President of Mexico and former CEO of Coca-Cola Mexico Vicente Fox Quesada, and Eloy Oakley, Director and George R. Boggs, President and CEO Emeritus, both of the American Association of Community Colleges. We also gathered the perspectives from community college leaders themselves, including Monte E. Perez, President of Los Angeles Mission College and Michele Siqueiros, Executive Director of the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Over 30 community colleges from the greater Los Angeles area and California were represented at this summit. The evening’s panel discussions focused on the hot topic of middle-skills jobs, and more specifically, areas where job seekers, educators, and employers alike identify the most severe gaps in filling vacant positions in manufacturing, technology, energy and other expanding industries with qualified individuals.

The primary takeaway from this summit, surprisingly, was that a common misconception exists advancing the notion that individuals need to attend a traditional, four-year university in order to enter and progress within the workforce. While many students and alumni who attend four-year colleges may share this viewpoint, our panelists upheld that in reality, employers themselves aren’t as concerned with the name of job applicants’ alma maters. Hiring managers are instead seeking qualified candidates who have acquired particular skill sets, certificates, and degrees that best fulfill their hiring needs, reducing training needed for new hires and decreasing overall employee turnover rates.

From the perspective of our global leaders, Secretary William J. Bennett advanced that most importantly, job seekers must be supplied with the most direct, straightforward career pathways coupled with the rudimentary resources and tools needed at all junctures of education, degree and certification, employment, and onward. Secondly, President Vicente Fox Quesada asserted that specifically filling and advancing the middle-skill industries are vital for overall economic improvement to occur.

At the community college level, the panelists proposed that greater synergy must occur between high school and secondary institutions like community colleges and vocational training programs. For example, Eloy Oakley put forward that well defined and more diverse career pathways must be offered at the high school level, to supply students with the sufficient academic cornerstone to achieve higher education and subsequent employment success upon graduation. As evidence, Oakley offered his work with Los Angeles Trade Technical College in making the thriving automobile repair industry more attractive to first year students at LATTC.

“We need to be more courageous and have a clearer vision of education,” asserted Michele Siqueiros, when asked what is the primary action needed to tear down this largely accepted stance that only four-year university degree holders can procure professional success. Along similar veins, Monte E. Perez seconded, “The community needs to demand education,” in order for tangible, forthcoming change to occur.

Moreover, when we look at international countries such as Switzerland and Germany, where vocational skills are highly regarded in the occupational realm, we see a vast number of engineers and STEM workers emerging from these regions as a result. In the United States, vocational training can often be a loaded term for some minorities, who feel it is often used as a subjective conduit to steer them away from four-year degrees.

It is known that advances in technology and a movement towards standardization and automaticity has caused middle-skill occupations once traditionally considered “blue collar” to require employees like factory workers, mechanics, energy and IT professionals to acquire a vast amount of advanced technical knowledge in lieu of physical labor. This technical knowledge, as it turns out, can often be taught in a more fast-paced, hands-on environment at the community college level than at a university.

As put forth at the Viridis Learning Summit and evident through today’s most discerning discussions surrounding higher education, it is this stereotype that students, parents, educators and employers must strive to overcome. When this stigma is broken, a thriving, prosperous middle-skill workforce can become a closer reality.

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