COVID-19: Rebuilding a Strong Workforce

April 16, 2020

California is facing a workforce and educational shortage that is likely only to worsen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the crisis, the Public Policy Institute of California estimated that by 2030 California will have a shortage of 1.1 million workers holding a bachelor’s degree. More recent data shows the short-term impact in an industry especially relevant to the pandemic: healthcare. Last month the California Employment Development Department (EDD) estimated that by 2021, California will need 1,000 more physicians and surgeons, 11,100 more registered nurses, and 1,000 more respiratory therapists. The state is already responding to these shortages. Governor Newsom, for example, has signed Executive Order N-39-20, which will expand California’s health care workforce by temporarily waiving licensing, staffing, certification, and permitting requirements for medical professionals. As of April 6, over 81,000 people had signed up to serve in the California Health Corps, allowing health care facilities to staff at least an additional 50,000 hospital beds. In the longer term, California will need to continue these kinds of steps, seeking to establish more efficient and timely ways to educate individuals and integrate them into the workforce. The Commission has addressed this topic in past reports.

Some answers lie in the need to reform our state’s occupational licensing system. In our 2016 report, Jobs for Californians: Strategies to Ease Occupational Licensing Barriers, the Commission found that the state’s occupational licensing system increasingly inhibited upward mobility of workers in California. At the time of our report, approximately 21 percent of California’s 19 million workers were licensed (30th highest in the nation). This was a jump up from the 1950s when approximately one in 20 workers nationwide were required to apply for permission from the government to practice their profession.

The Commission recommended bridge education programs to make it easier for veterans and workers trained outside of California to quickly meet missing educational requirements. To allow workers to lend a hand quickly, we found that developing interim work and apprenticeship models provides opportunities for people missing certain qualifications to work while they seek to meet their requirements. This also helps to promote upward mobility within career paths.

California also needs to ensure that students have the resources they need to quickly and cost-effectively reach their academic goals. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students are facing challenges as schools across the state are adjusting to abruptly providing their instruction online. This transition is serving to further exacerbate the digital divide facing California students. According to Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, roughly 20 percent of California students lacked digital connectivity before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the challenge to providing quality online education is two-fold -- not only is there a need to ensure that students have the resources they need to succeed, but professors and instructors need to be trained in how to provide online education. In the Los Angeles Community College District, the nation’s largest community college district, only 2,000 of the district’s 5,000 faculty are certified in distance education. District leaders have scrambled to train faculty on how to lead an online course.

Although the state had made some progress even before the pandemic, it is imperative that California capitalize on this opportunity to better develop online education to help students achieve their academic goals and to better rebuild our workforce with limited resources. In our 2013 report, A New Plan for a New Economy: Reimagining Higher Education, the Commission examined California’s higher education system and found that investment in online education and increased coordination between colleges could play a key role in helping the state reach its current and future civic and workforce needs. Additionally, experts told the Commission that improving the transfer process is one of the most important paths for reaching the state's projected shortage of graduates. Continued work in this regard is something for policymakers to bear in mind.

In fall 2018, over 61,000 students entered the California State University (CSU) as transfers from a California Community College (CCC) and in that same year, 26,582 students were admitted to a University of California from a CCC. While California colleges are working to improve the transfer process, nationwide, transfer students, on average, lose more than 40% of the credits they already earned. This could be cost-prohibitive for students having to make difficult financial decisions during and after the pandemic. While colleges and universities are investing time and resources in developing online classes, the Commission recommended that they make high-demand introductory courses and bottleneck courses, such as prerequisite courses, transferrable for both content and unit credit system to all campuses of California's public higher education system (California community colleges, California state universities, and all campuses of the University of California). This would help remove barriers for transfer students and minimize the course credit loss that can incur when switching schools.

As noted earlier, adapting to education online has its share of problems and the Commission noted the importance of continuing to explore how online courses engage first-generation students, English-language learners, students with remedial needs, and low-income students with restricted access to computers at home or to speedy broadband Internet access. The Commission encouraged academic leaders to view online learning as a tool to boost their work and bolster the reach of public higher education, a critical step to helping California rebuild a strong workforce during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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