Recent technological changes, such as the rise of automated production, have contributed to new growth in advanced manufacturing sectors and increased demand for middle-skill workers – those who have some postsecondary technical education or related work experience but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Employers in many areas of the U.S. have reported difficulty finding enough workers with the skills they need, especially in emerging fields such as robotics, and many have called for reforms in the education and training system to generate a stronger pipeline of workers into these jobs.
The career pathways approach emerged in the late 1990s as a potential solution to these retraining challenges because it focuses on providing a clear trajectory into a career (with open opportunities for continued advancement), providing extra support for adult learners balancing multiple responsibilities or those with barriers to employment, and making smooth connections to employment. The U.S. Department of Labor made a series of major investments in sector-based career pathways through Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training (TAACCCT) grants, which were awarded to community colleges and consortia of community colleges around the country. The TAACCCT grants represented one of the first substantial investments in systems-level innovations in workforce training programs using a career pathways framework.
SPR is pleased to release the final evaluation report that synthesizes findings from the Advanced Manufacturing, Mechatronics, and Quality Consortium (AMMQC) initiative, a Round 3 TAACCCT grant awarded in 2013 to a consortium of four community colleges in four different states. The consortium included Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC) in Massachusetts, Bossier Parish Community College (BPCC) in Louisiana, North Central State College (NCSC) in Ohio, and Southwest Tennessee Community College (STCC). The report is organized in a case study format, highlighting how the regional and institutional context shaped implementation at each community college in particular ways. It also presents impact findings at the participant level, which were generally promising despite there being insufficient time to fully observe student outcomes.
Key Findings and Recommendations
- AMMQC improved participating colleges’ capacity to provide training for on-demand jobs in advanced manufacturing. AMMQC activities resulted in the creation or enhancement of a total of 24 programs—eight noncredit and 16 for-credit. AMMQC also led to significant increases in the capacity of colleges to serve students, including new instructional equipment, new connections with employers, and virtual training software.
- Students were very satisfied with the training they received. Students reported that AMMQC allowed their colleges to provide high quality training, responsive student support services, and up-to-date manufacturing equipment that mirrored the equipment in use in the workforce. We also heard, during focus groups with program participants, ample feedback suggesting that a sense of cohesion developed between student cohorts and that students gained a sense of capability and professional worth, as shown in the quote below:
- Pre-existing levels of employer engagement made a difference. The colleges that came into the grant with a more organized and engaged manufacturing base in their region generally had more success in engaging employers in substantive ways to enhance curriculum and connect students to jobs. Our findings suggest that community colleges in regions experiencing economic stagnation may need additional resources and infrastructure to facilitate employer and economic development partnerships. Locating economic development agencies on college campuses was a promising practice.
- The organizational position of the grant team within the college affected ease of implementation. When the grant was positioned at a high level within the college governance structure, the grant team had an easier time making grant-related changes that required administrative backing. Because career pathways approaches typically involve making significant changes to the structure and sequence of courses, having high-level buy-in and support from the college president and their immediate subordinates was instrumental given the relatively short timeframe for grant implementation.
- Stability of college leadership facilitated program development. Stable college leadership was conducive to smoother implementation and better career pathways development. By contrast, changes in leaderships made it difficult for grant teams to make necessary changes to curriculum, hire staff and faculty in a timely manner, and establish articulation agreements.
- Institutional separation between noncredit and for-credit activities can cause barriers to pathways advancement. Like many community colleges across the nation, none of the AMMQC colleges had a tradition of collaboration between their noncredit and credit divisions, which could have helped adult learners transition more smoothly from entry-level training to more advanced training with better career ladders and higher pay.
- Colleges that allocated existing staff and faculty for grant implementation (rather than hiring new employees) experienced smoother implementation. Staff and faculty that had a long history at the college could leverage their relationships to make implementation go more smoothly, whereas colleges that hired new staff often struggled with long hiring windows and onboarding. In addition, colleges that hired new staff had more difficulty retaining them through the entire grant period and were less likely to sustain the position at the end of the grant (inhibiting institutional memory and sustainability).
- An overreliance on temporary employment agencies as a placement strategy can be problematic for long-term employment outcomes. While temporary employment agencies generated high initial employment numbers, the overall goals of temporary employment agency partners were focused less on career ladders for students and more on immediate hiring needs. Students did not perceive the jobs from the temporary agencies to be “good” jobs and were frustrated by what they perceived to be a lack of more permanent job options with advancement potential.
- Noncredit readiness programs showed promise for improving access to training for those with barriers to employment, but few of those programs were sustained beyond the grant. All AMMQC colleges struggled to strike an effective balance between increasing access to training for populations with barriers to employment and screening out people with employment barriers to cultivate a pool of job candidates that employers felt were ready to work. Students from one college who began a noncredit industrial readiness program had substantially higher post-participation employment rates than individuals enrolled in Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act-funded Adult and Dislocated Worker programs from the same region who received no training. This was a promising finding since many grant program participants had substantial barriers to employment (including ex-offender status, substance abuse issues, and low income). However, there were no resources available to continue funding that training beyond the grant and the college faced challenges in connecting the completers into credit-based programs.
- Stronger connections with employers could help students with job placement. Many students said that they expected colleges to play a larger role in job placement. This suggests that another, deeper level of employer engagement may be possible in which completers of specific training programs at community colleges can bypass initial steps in the hiring process and participate only in the final stages of the selection process. Many employers also expressed a desire for more engagement with the college, but they had limited awareness of who to contact and limited knowledge of existing programs and credentials.
Overall, our evaluation of AMMQC suggests that career pathways programs funded through the grant held significant potential to transform the educational and labor market landscape of the participating regions. However, there are many barriers that still need to be overcome. Successful career pathways systems can alleviate labor market imbalances, but in the absence of a concerted policy to support and sustain career pathways initiatives in the long-term, the potential of the career pathways foundations that the grant established may be lost.
The Final AMMQC Evaluation Report is available for download.