Dan Walters

California faces ‘skills gap’ that colleges aren’t closing

Tour manager Sarah Rowe shows the results of a virtual welding simulation to Dakota Arguello during the Welding Expo at American River College in Sacramento on Feb. 6, 2016. The welding industry is in need of workers, and ARC is trying to attract students to train them for those careers.
Tour manager Sarah Rowe shows the results of a virtual welding simulation to Dakota Arguello during the Welding Expo at American River College in Sacramento on Feb. 6, 2016. The welding industry is in need of workers, and ARC is trying to attract students to train them for those careers. Sacramento Bee file

The Public Policy Institute of California analyzes dozens of pithy issues, but sitting atop its priority list is the state’s troubled higher education system.

Once the envy of the world, California’s three-level system – the University of California, the California State University system, and more than 100 locally governed community colleges – is now buffeted by a perfect economic, cultural and political storm.

PPIC’s latest report underscores its dilemma. It found that “the vast majority of students entering California’s community colleges are identified as unprepared for college and placed in remedial courses…”

Obviously, that’s not the community colleges’ fault, but rather one of the effects of an equally troubled K-12 system, which awards diplomas to students lacking the academic achievement they need to succeed as adults.

Spending taxpayer money on high school graduates who are unprepared for higher education, and then spending more on remedial classes is not only counterproductive, but a factor in what PPIC sees as a widening “skills gap.”

The state’s ever-evolving economy, with its emphasis on technology, demands an ever-increasing number of workers with at least some post-high-school education, and the need is magnified by the retirement of baby boomer workers.

“If current trends in the demand for skilled workers and the educational attainment of the state’s population continue, California will face a large skills gap by 2030 … 1.1 million workers with bachelor’s degrees short of economic demand,” another PPIC report, issued last spring, concludes.

Interestingly, in light of the current political furor over immigration, PPIC says the shortage would be even greater were it not for an influx of adult Asian immigrants, the vast majority of whom have college degrees when they arrive.

One major impediment to closing the skills gap is financial. The state’s share of colleges’ operational costs has been shrinking, and the share borne by students has been increasing, which hits students from low-income families especially hard, even if they manage to acquire the required college entry skills.

It’s a product of the state’s truly irrational budgetary system, one increasingly dependent on taxing a handful of high-income residents whose incomes vary widely.

The ever-increasing volatility of state revenue is matched by the ever-increasing rigidity of the spending side of the ledger, leaving higher education as one of politicians’ few options for spending cutbacks when they face deficits. Over time, therefore, the collegiate cost burden has been shifted from taxpayers to students and their families.

All of these factors, and many others, have shredded the state’s much-vaunted “master plan for higher education,” adopted more than a half-century ago.

It’s high time that the plan be either repealed or rewritten to deal with 21st-century reality, eliminating the artificial boundaries that separate the systems and embracing such recent innovations as allowing community colleges to offer cost-effective four-year degrees.

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