Community Colleges as a Mechanism for Economic Mobility and Talent Pipeline for the Public Sector Workforce

June 26, 2024

Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing economy, the United States is facing a major workforce challenge on both the supply and demand sides of the labor market. As organizations struggle to recruit and hire skilled talent for in-demand roles, many skilled workers are prevented from accessing jobs that are proven to promote economic mobility – often because of unnecessary four-year degree requirements in job descriptions. 

Over the past several decades, employers’ reliance on four-year degrees has had a massive effect on the upward mobility of about half of the workforce, approximately 70 million individuals, who have a high school diploma or equivalent but do not have a four-year college degree. A growing body of research demonstrates that these workers who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs) – such as community college, military service, or on-the-job training rather than a bachelor’s degree – possess in-demand skills that qualify them for higher-paying jobs, but are locked out from accessing them by a variety of systemic barriers. But there’s reason for optimism. Thanks to new research, as well as national campaigns like “Tear the Paper Ceiling”, employers and education providers alike are beginning to recognize the importance of hiring and supporting STARs to not just create new pathways to economic opportunity, but also building a stronger and more resilient labor force. 

Community colleges have a uniquely powerful role to play in helping STARs achieve economic mobility. In the words of the Harvard Project on Workforce, community colleges often serve as “economic engines” for regional growth — helping employers in their region fill talent gaps while also enabling their community members to access onramps to higher-wage jobs. Crucially, our nation’s community colleges can also serve as a faster, more affordable alternative for STARs to develop their skill sets compared to the often arduous process of taking on loans and temporarily leaving the workforce to earn a four-year degree.

With these factors in mind, community colleges, which are typically deeply integrated in their local labor markets, have the potential to be an effective partner to hiring managers across one particular sector of the labor market – the federal, state, and local governments that continue to struggle to fill open roles. A growing number of government officials are taking action to close labor market gaps by tearing the paper ceiling – removing four-year degree requirements for roles in the public sector. Since 2022, 22 states and the federal government have opened an estimated 467,000 state jobs to STARs through executive orders, and legislation to codify the removal of degree requirements from job postings. While these decisions are a crucial first step, the sector must now make good on the promise of removing degree requirements by actually hiring STARs and supporting their advancement through the organization.

What does that work look like in practice, and how can community colleges join forces with government leaders to enable STARs to access careers in the federal, state, and local workforce? In the coming months, ACCT and Opportunity@Work will collaborate to share a suite of resources informed by insights from the State of Maryland and four Maryland Community Colleges including – Carroll Community College, Community College of Baltimore County, Frederick Community College, and Howard Community College – on how community college administrators and faculty can build clear pathways into the public sector. To learn more and gain access to the resources, visit ACCT and Opportunity@Work.

CiCi Flanagan is the Senior Customer Success Manager at Opportunity@Work.

Audrey Mickahail is the Senior Vice President of Delivery at Opportunity@Work.

Opportunity@Work’s mission is to rewire the U.S. labor market so that all individuals Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs) can work, learn, and earn to their full potential. To rewire the labor market to value skills over pedigree, Opportunity@Work uses a data-driven, two-pronged strategy – focused on supply resources and demand – to achieve greater economic mobility and racial equity on behalf of STARS.

About ACCT Now

Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

Washington D.C. skyline