Political unrest across the country and the globe was the story of the past year. I believe that widespread economic insecurity has been at the root of much of that discontent. American community colleges, the sector of higher education closely tied to jobs and workforce development, have a unique leadership opportunity to step forward, but we face challenges created by the growing inequalities in regional economic growth.
Many rural colleges are seeing jobs in their communities disappear and their population dwindling. They face a dilemma sometimes expressed as “training for what.” Fortunately, the region served by NOVA finds itself at the other end of the economic spectrum with expansive job growth, creating a call for our college to play a more active role in workforce development. In a period of resource scarcity, we are presented with the challenge of where to prioritize new investments and what areas of our college should we strengthen and grow.
A key starting point for NOVA is our strategic planning, “Pathway to the American Dream,” and our ambitious goal that “every community prospers” by refocusing and strengthening our overall workforce development efforts.
Here is our unique opportunity: NOVA serves a metropolitan region that was fourth in the nation last year in advertised job openings, but 18 out of 20 in growth of our labor force. Jobs are increasing quickly, but for various reasons – housing costs, transportation challenges, and the decline of millennial mobility to a 50-year low, people are slower moving to our region to seek job opportunities. This regional challenge is an opportunity for us. Education institutions like NOVA are important for “home growing” talent to meet economic demands, and provide additional opportunities for our students to claim the bountiful jobs available in our region.
One way we can do this is to refocus our workforce development efforts from a division function, to an overall college agenda under the leadership of our new Vice President of Workforce Development Steve Partridge. This means new resources for career development and labor market information, increased emphasis and opportunities for apprenticeships and internships, and rethinking job placement strategies.
In addition, we are ramping up new career connections for our Veteran students, and forging partnerships with the Workforce Investment Boards, Northern Virginia Technology Council, public schools and four-year partners. We will play a key role with the new GoVirginia regional economic planning council. We recently became the statewide lead with the new Workforce Credentials Grant, providing workplace credentials (ex. certifications and licensures) to our students looking for a foothold in starting a “career pathway.”
Over the next few years, our program focus will be on information technology, cybersecurity and health care. Almost a quarter of the jobs advertised in our area are computer-related, and we are by far the number one cybersecurity region in the nation. Our cybersecurity program has grown 20-fold in enrollment in just three years. It is the fastest growing program at NOVA. We lead the nation in IT graduates.
Keeping up with and enhancing that growth will be a major focal point for us as we strive to be the nation’s community college leader in information technology/cyber programs. We will be adding and renovating facilities, such as the Battleview Technology Center acquisition in Manassas, to accommodate this growth. We will also be deepening our faculty resources and strengthening partnerships with organizations such as YearUp, Marine Corps University, CodeVA, and Amazon Web Services. We will be offering a new program at our Loudoun Campus to support the largest concentration of data centers in the world. In many ways, the Internet and computer connectivity was birthed in our region over 30 years ago through organizations such as DARPA and America Online, and our region is central to securing and advancing that connectivity for the future.
The most in-demand job in our region last year was nursing. Health care jobs will continue to be plentiful as people in our area age. We will work to identify other programs needed by our region and attempt to forge new opportunities for clinical training sites that can serve as a bottleneck in program enrollment growth, through the HealthForce collaborative we lead in partnership with other colleges and major health care employers in the region. The Medical Education Center will continue to serve as the “mothership” for NOVA health programs. Expect to see some health care programs spreading to our comprehensive campuses under the leadership of a new provost for health care who we will be recruiting to replace Dr. Loochtan.
Finally, as we turn a corner on 2020, NOVA will plan for what will be our next big curriculum area for workforce program development, growth that will likely require a significant investment in new facilities. It may be in the area of culinary/hospitality to support a region that is already a leader in restaurants, hotels and tourism. We have tremendous opportunities to expand our transportation-related programs and foster a connection with our college technology programs, particularly the growing autonomy (think driverless cars). This will foster an increased need for technical skill sets that are both transportation and computer-related.
The good news for us is that opportunities for demand-based education and workforce development programs are strong in our region. Our challenge will be seizing those prospects and making the right plans and choices for program development.