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The looming shortage of an educated workforce — and how to avoid it

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City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus, pictured on March 31, 2016. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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The economic news coming out of the Bay Area is generally better than the rest of the nation. Unemployment remains at a low 3.4 percent, and the region leads the state in job growth. But that rosy picture masks a serious problem on the horizon: a shortage of workers with post-secondary degrees to fill the jobs being created. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, if current labor market trends persist, the state faces a shortfall of about 1.1 million college graduates by 2030.

California’s higher education system is vital to our economic growth. The problem is that many students who get into college are not graduating. And too many who do graduate often take five or six years to complete what should be a four-year degree program. If we could get more students into and all the way through college in a timelier manner, it would go a long way toward solving the projected shortfall of educated workers.

So how can we do that? The first step is to take a serious look at the millions of dollars and thousands of student hours being spent in remedial education. Of the roughly half a million students entering the CSU and California community college system each year, 70 percent are required to repeat high school courses — in which they earned good grades — in one or more areas. In too many cases, this remedial placement is determined by a single standardized test. There is a growing body of evidence that many students placed in remediation, including those from historically underserved populations, should not be there. And far from improving their chances of success in college, remediation more often has the opposite effect.

There are currently more than 50 pilot programs underway among state community colleges (including our own City College of San Francisco) in which incoming students are being placed based on multiple measures — grade point averages, attendance records and other metrics besides test scores. Educational Results Partnership is compiling and analyzing data on these programs, and the findings thus far are extremely compelling. Essentially, there is strong evidence that multiple measures are a better predictor of student success in college-level courses than standardized test scores. The evidence also shows that nonremedial placement is having a powerful impact on graduation rates. Students that place out of remediation based on multiple measures are more likely to graduate than those that have to sit through an extra year of high school-level work. Remediation, in fact, is proving to be a disincentive for students to follow through and complete their education.

In the pipeline from kindergarten to the workforce, remediation is a major choke point for which we now appear to have a solution. Reducing the number of students in remedial classes will save millions in taxpayer dollars and student fees and countless hours toward earning a degree. It is now up to the state universities, community colleges and local K-12 school systems to work in much closer collaboration and alignment to make sure students entering the higher education system are properly prepared and appropriately placed.

It is also up to the business community to throw its support behind best practices in education that are proven to produce superior results. A shortage of educated workers to fill demanding jobs is a threat to our economic growth and competitiveness, but it is one we can meet. The solution is sitting in our public school classrooms today.

Lee Blitch is interim president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

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