Workforce development has been one of the key missions of community
colleges nearly from their inception in the beginning of the twentieth
century (Vaughan 2006). Community college curricula are replete with
vocational programming to serve high school graduates, adults changing careers, students with poor academic standing, as well as the traditionally underserved groups,
including low-income, first-generation college attendees and minority students. For
these markedly different populations, community colleges offer a chance for economic security since individuals with more education tend to have lower rates of
unemployment (USNCES 2012a) and greater earning potential (USNCES 2012b).
Unfortunately, it is the underserved that are most likely to drop out and never complete a college degree (Burns 2010) thereby perpetuating a negative cycle that keeps
these populations in lesser-skilled jobs with lower earnings. Mechanisms that will
help retain these students in the community colleges are of vital importance.
The twenty-first century has brought new challenges to employability, even for
students who attain a college degree. The globalization of the economy, the outsourcing of jobs, and the recession have contributed to increased rates of unemployment.
In spite of these systemic changes, many middle-skilled jobs requiring some college
credit or an associate’s degree remain unfilled (Carnevale and Smith 2013). President
Obama (2009) issued a mandate to community colleges to address twenty-first century workforce development, stating that “ . . . in the coming years, jobs requiring at
least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college
experience. We will not fill those jobs—or keep those jobs on our shores—without
A. E. Traver et al. (eds.), Service-Learning at the American Community College
© Amy E. Traver and Zivah Perel Katz 2014
Ellerton, S., Di Meo, C., Kemmerer, A., Pantaleo, J., Bandziukas, M.,
Bradley, M., & Fichera, V. (2014). Service-Learning as a Pedagogical
Tool for Career Development and Vocational Training. In Service
Learning at the American Community College (Community
Engagement in Higher Education, pp. 211-224). New York:
Palgrave Macmillan US.
212 M Ellerton et al.
the training offered by community colleges” (paragraph 5). Further, Arne Duncan
(2010), US Secretary of Education, stated that community colleges “have a new mission . . . to prepare students to compete successfully in the twenty-first century knowledge economy and participate in civic society” (paragraph 5).
Although the government’s charge to community colleges is clear, the means to
best prepare community college students for twenty-first century jobs are less so.
While community colleges may teach the industry-specific technical skills needed to
enter the workforce, additional skills are necessary to remain competitive and function effectively within the workplace. The US Department of Labor (2013) recognizes
general areas of “soft skills” necessary for workforce development, which include: oral
and written communication skills, teamwork skills (i.e., respect for differing opinions
and customs), problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, and professionalism (i.e.,
responsibility, accountability, and integrity). It is logical that students with the “hard
skills” or technical knowledge would be most successful if they also have “soft skills” or
the nontechnical knowledge needed in the workplace (Bancino and Zevalkink 2007).
As agencies involved in workforce development were recognizing the importance of “soft skills,” a parallel line of thinking was developing in higher education.
Through the LEAP initiative (2007), the Association of American Colleges and
Universities (AACU) developed a set of “Essential Learning Outcomes” that all
colleges should provide their students as part of a liberal education. Many of these
learning outcomes are the same “soft skills” deemed important for workforce development, although some skills are framed in slightly different language. The AACU’s
essential learning outcomes include: written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, problem solving skills, civic knowledge and engagement skills, intercultural knowledge and competence, and ethical reasoning skills. Employers reviewed
this list of “essentials” and the majority considered these outcomes important for
student success in the workplace (AACU and Hart Research Associates 2010). In
a similar survey (AACU 2013) nearly all employers agreed that the ability to think
critically and communicate clearly is more important than the student’s major. They
prefer to hire employees who demonstrate ethical judgment, integrity, and intercultural skills. Employers also stated that colleges should emphasize “ . . . written
and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings” (AACU
2013, 2). It is this confluence of thinking about the importance of “soft skills” in the
workplace and essential learning objectives in higher education that places colleges
at the center of student workforce development.
Kuh (2008) provides a pathway for college students to achieve these essential
learning outcomes/“soft skills” by aligning each learning outcome with one or
more of ten identified high-impact pedagogies. Within this framework, curriculum
development at four-year institutions could include these pedagogies in designated
elective courses. In contrast, curricula in two-year associate or certificate technical
programs are tightly proscribed, with very few elective credits available. This would
suggest that in the community college setting, the pedagogies that provide “soft
skill” learning be incorporated into existing “hard skill” coursework. For multiple
reasons, service-learning stands out among the high-impact practices as a pedagogy
that can be readily incorporated into community college curricula and best serve
career and technical students in this way.