From the President: Filling skills gap key to economic prosperity

May 30, 2024 Dr. Rose B. Bellanca

A photo of Dr. Rose B. Bellanca.


We’re fortunate to live and work in Washtenaw County, where job growth and other economic indicators are expected to continue to outpace the state average over the next three years. That message was clear when University of Michigan economists recently presented their Washtenaw County Economic Outlook report at an event I hosted at Washtenaw Community College.

However, there’s still plenty of hard work to do to maintain that position.

Michigan’s population is aging and growing at a very slow rate, so there’s a smaller pool of candidates to fill our workforce pipeline. While the state government works to boost population growth and retain the state’s talent, WCC and other community colleges are playing a pivotal role in keeping the state’s pipeline moving.

“Not only does WCC fill the important role of educating students who then transfer to earn a bachelor’s degree, they’re also providing the technical training that gets people into jobs that require an associate degree or certificate,” U-M economist Donald Grimes said at the conclusion of the presentation.

“That’s really important for the future because we need to get the most out of our potential labor force. We need to get people into the labor force that were out, we need to get them trained, and we need to increase their productivity.”

Because here’s the truth about that predicted job growth: It’s happening in the skilled trades and in fields that require some higher education. Jobs that can be filled by someone with a high school education are the slowest growing sector.

This isn’t a new challenge for WCC. It’s one of the main reasons we exist – to train the talent necessary for our county to be successful. We’ve always reacted to the needs of the community.

When Michigan Medicine and Trinity Health were having a hard time filling open positions with qualified medical assistants and cardiac telemetry technicians, we started programs to fill that pipeline. When businesses couldn’t find truck drivers, we partnered with Trainco Truck Driving School in Ohio to bring their training directly to Ann Arbor. The examples go on and on.

Recent surveys confirm what we’ve long known: the skills gap is real, and it’s growing. Employers across various sectors are struggling to find workers with the right expertise, leading to increased demand for alternative credentials and rapid upskilling initiatives.

It’s happening here in Washtenaw County. There’s a mismatch between the skills employers need and the skills the local workforce possesses. This disparity is exacerbated by the rapid evolution of technology, which constantly reshapes the demands of the job market.

So, what can educators like us do to tackle this challenge head-on? We must be proactive agents of change, constantly adapting our curriculum to meet the shifting needs of employers. By doing so, we arm our students with the tools they need to thrive in today’s workforce.

Why does this matter? Because it’s not just about securing jobs—it’s about empowering individuals and driving economic growth. By equipping our students with relevant skills, we not only enhance their employability but also bolster the businesses that rely on a skilled workforce.

Moreover, addressing the skills gap reaffirms the value of a college education, especially in the eyes of skeptics who question its worth. By demonstrating tangible outcomes, such as high employment rates and career advancement opportunities, we dispel doubts and underscore the importance of post-secondary education.

The urgency to address this gap has only intensified in recent years, fueled in part by the upheavals of the pandemic. Technological advancements, shifting job markets, and the “great resignation” have all contributed to a perfect storm of workforce challenges.

Leaders of community colleges bear a solemn responsibility to our students and our communities. At Washtenaw, we take this duty seriously, leveraging taxpayer dollars to deliver exceptional education programs that meet the needs of our region.

Our track record speaks for itself. Over the past decade, we’ve listened to the needs of employers, adapted our programs accordingly, and equipped thousands of students with the skills to succeed. From cybersecurity specialists to advanced automotive technicians, our graduates are making tangible contributions to our economy.

The task of bridging the skills gap is not new to us. It’s a challenge we’ve confronted time and again, armed with resilience, innovation, and a steadfast commitment to our mission. As we chart a course forward, we’ll draw upon our past successes to navigate the uncertainties of the future.

Together, we’ll continue to close the skills gap, one student at a time, ensuring a brighter future for all.

Tags: Dr. Rose B. Bellanca, Economic Outlook, May 2024, On The Record, President's Column, Student Success, Washtenaw County

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