We need to maximize the workforce potential of our community colleges

Texas’ economy has been declared open again after the COVID pandemic. But many employers and customers seeking timely service or goods are learning that we need more skilled people in the workforce to lead us back to a fully robust economy.

The good news is Texas has people. Our state grew by 4 million over the last decade, bringing our population to 29 million, and we could see nearly 9 million more Texans living here by 2036 when the state turns 200.

The question now is how will we prepare this growing population to contribute to our state’s prosperity, particularly given automation technologies and other disruptions that will have an impact on future workforce needs.

One answer is Texas’ community colleges.

Texas has 50 two-year community college districts with campuses across the state. More than 660,000 Texans are currently enrolled in classes to attain the skills and credentials needed for immediate jobs or build toward four-year bachelor’s degrees. Community colleges help upskill and reskill Texas workers and are open to any Texan.

In advance of the 2023 legislative session – what many are hoping will become a “workforce session” – it is essential to look at community colleges’ role in workforce development. It is also crucial that we examine why we place last among large states in the percentage of our population with postsecondary credentials.

To accomplish this, the Texas Legislature established the Commission on Community College Finance, which held its first hearings this week in Austin. Its mission is to craft recommendations for the Legislature to establish a state funding formula and appropriate funding levels to sustain viable community college education and training programs throughout the state.

This mission should also include looking at how Texas’ community colleges can partner with high schools, employers, and four-year colleges to build career pathways that lead to good-paying jobs. The commission should also evaluate the availability and kinds of courses offered to Texas students.

Not surprisingly, Texans agree.

In August, Texas 2036 polled voters and found that almost 9 out of 10 Texas voters wanted community colleges to focus on offering course programs that match the needs of the local workforce. And 7 out of 10 thought the state should link community college funding levels to whether students find good-paying jobs after completing their educational program. Better workforce alignment isn’t just necessary, it’s popular and a smart financial investment.

Each year, Texas spends more than $5.5 billion on community colleges, including almost $1 billion from students themselves, $1.3 billion from the federal government, and $3.4 billion from Texas taxpayers through general funds and designated property tax collections.

Given Texas’ need to develop a workforce for the future and close the gaps that impede students’ ability to succeed in the 21st Century economy, this investment in human capital is essential. By 2036, 71 percent of all jobs in Texas will require a postsecondary credential, but only 32 percent of high school graduates currently earn such a credential within six years of completing high school.

And Texas’ outlook is off-track, as the state is lagging behind the progress needed to reach its goal of having 60 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds earn a degree or credential by 2030.

Community colleges are an important means to address these challenges and ensure that every Texan has an opportunity to achieve success.

The Texas Commission on Community College Finance provides a critical opportunity to address these challenges and engaging the business community in this process will provide more Texans with the postsecondary credentials needed to compete for good jobs.

A.J. Rodriguez is executive vice president of Texas 2036. Glenn Hamer is president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business. This piece first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.