The U.S. government is making massive investments to update America’s infrastructure so we can meet some of the biggest challenges of this century: addressing climate change, improving economic competitiveness, and safeguarding our supply chain.

This influx of federal dollars — through the CHIPS and Inflation Reduction Act — offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity. In fact, with their incentives to boost domestic production of semiconductors and clean-energy components such as lithium-ion batteries and solar panels, these new laws could virtually reinvent American manufacturing.

But the dollars will only go so far if we lack the skilled workforce needed to fill the newly created positions. There’s a predicted gap of 70,000 to 90,000 skilled workers to build semiconductors in the coming years, and clean-energy companies are projecting shortfalls for the 537,000 jobs per decade generated by federal efforts.

These challenges mirror a larger structural problem: Only about half of working-age Americans have credentials beyond a high school diploma. On top of that, significant disparities across racial and ethnic groups are preventing large swaths of Americans from realizing the social and economic mobility that comes with education and training after high school.

Time for states to reinvest

To address these gaps, we must look first to America’s community colleges. These vital institutions already serve nearly 40% of all U.S. undergraduate students, proving they can create change at scale. And they can do more — if we invest in them properly.

States must give their community colleges the resources they need to develop a skilled workforce for the next generation of American manufacturing.

The economic turmoil of the Great Recession forced many states to cut funds for community colleges. While some states have since restored or even increased funding, this revival has been uneven, and funding still lags in many places.

Because of these shortfalls, community colleges need help to serve students well. Too many struggle to provide the robust academic advising and wraparound supports that are especially crucial for students from low-income backgrounds.

States that want to compete in the clean-energy economy should do all they can to position community colleges as the engines of talent development for this new workforce. And it’s not just about providing more money; it also means spending it wisely, and making strategic investments that maximize finite resources to meet the needs of today’s students and economy.

A three-pronged approach

Three steps can help create the change we need:

  • Fund institutions based on outcomes: Most U.S. states have some form of performance-based funding, which rewards states that achieve specific academic and life outcomes for students. This approach should be universal. The best outcomes-based policies allow institutions to inform the formula in a way that helps students from low-income backgrounds and Black, Hispanic, Latino, and Native students, achieve success.
  • Create partnerships between institutions and industry: As the economy becomes increasingly dynamic and complex, it will be ever more critical for employers and educational institutions to collaborate. Employers must take a hands-on role — first by telling institutions what skills they need for the future workforce, then by partnering with community colleges to provide the training and education that builds those skills, and thirdly by kicking in some of the costs of these programs. With employer engagement, community colleges can shape their course offerings to meet workforce demand and deliver high-quality instruction to students.
  • Provide wraparound supports: Cost remains the top reason that people choose not to pursue college. And it’s never just about tuition. Today’s students, particularly those at community colleges, face other barriers as well, including child care, transportation, food, and housing. With adequate and wisely deployed resources, community colleges can make a difference by assisting students in these critical areas — which often cause students to drop out, or not enroll in the first place.

Our country has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild its economy in a way that creates good-paying, clean-energy jobs and benefits all Americans. To seize that opportunity, we must invest in people. Supporting and strengthening America’s community colleges is a key component of that.

This article was originally published in Community College Daily.

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