When the giant Indian technology-services firm Infosys announced last November that it would open a design and innovation hub in Providence, the company’s president said one of the key reasons he chose Rhode Island was its strong network of higher-education institutions: Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Community College of Rhode Island.
In a higher-education system that is often divided between two- and four-year colleges and further segregated between elite and nonelite institutions, it’s not often that a community college is mentioned in the same breath as an Ivy League campus. Nor is a two-year college seen as a training ground for jobs in the so-called creative economy, which include industries such as design, fashion, and computer gaming that typically require bachelor’s degrees.
But the Community College of Rhode Island, New England’s largest two-year college with more than 15,000 students, is working hard to change the tired image of two-year institutions as places for high-school graduates who can’t hack it on four-year campuses or for the unemployed trying to figure out what’s next. Led by Meghan Hughes, a relatively new president with an academic background in art history, the college is overhauling its approach to workforce development by better aligning programs with the state’s economic priorities than is currently the case.
“Like many colleges, we tended to be more reactive and slower to respond to training needs,” said Julian Alssid, who started last summer as vice president of workforce development. The college would typically wait for displaced workers to come to the campus to receive retraining instead of intervening before they were laid off. It had advisory groups of employers to provide guidance on certificates and degrees, but they met infrequently, so it would take months or sometimes years to tweak existing programs or start new ones.
Now, the college is in the process of reorganizing its continuing-education division to build ongoing partnerships with companies to keep it current on industry trends and operate training programs responsive to and in sync with the labor market. The alliance with Infosys is a good example of this new strategy as the college works with the company to figure out how the school can help in recruiting and training 500 workers who will make a median salary of $79,000.
The problem with many existing workforce-training programs, Alssid said, is that employers, colleges, and local workforce boards responsible for doling out federal funds “all operate separately, calcified in their own silos.” In this new economy, he added, “those worlds will blend together.”
The world of work is undergoing a massive shift. Not since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Information Age that followed in the last century has the scale of disruption taking place in the workforce been so evident. An oft-cited 2013 study from the University of Oxford predicted that nearly half of American jobs—including real-estate brokers, insurance underwriters, and loan officers—were at risk of being taken over by computers within the next two decades. Just last fall, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report that estimated a third of American workers may have to change jobs by 2030 because of artificial intelligence.
Previous shifts in how people work have typically been accompanied in the United States by an expansion in the amount of education required by employers to get a good job. In the early 1900s, the “high-school movement” turned secondary schools into a nationwide system for mass education that provided training for life instead of small-scale institutions designed to prepare a select group of students for college. In 1910, just 9 percent of American youths earned a high-school diploma; by 1935, 40 percent did.
This expansion of high schools was the first wave in a century-long broadening of education in the United States in response to the changing needs of the economy. The high-school movement was “truly path breaking,” wrote Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University economist, in a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “No other country underwent the transformation to virtually universal public secondary education” so early and so quickly. “Without the rapid rise of the high school,” Goldin argued, “America could not have put the GI Bill of Rights … into immediate action after 1944 for American youth would not yet have graduated high school.”