'Skills Builders': Mislabeled and Misunderstood

The changing needs of the modern American workforce will require continuous training among current and future employees. With its open-door policy and cost-effective courses, the community college provides opportunities for those seeking to increase or learn new skills. However, "skills builders” are often mislabeled by accreditors, state auditors and even college leaders as dropouts or non-completers. Skills builders tend to be older, employed and have existing degrees. They are apt to take courses for a short period of time with the desire to build specific skills and increase employability, often leaving without completing a certificate or degree but achieving their personal goals.

Beth Allan-BentleyBeth Allan-BentleyCommunity college leaders are urged to rethink what defines college success and completion as they consider technological changes and skills required to succeed in the workforce. They would benefit from learning about the skills builders who attend their institutions to meet their community responsibilities and better serve these focused students. Dr. Allan-Bentley conducted a 2021 study to better understand skills builders’ motivations to succeed in courses taken at a community college and the relevance of those courses to educational goals and job opportunities. The study addressed three primary questions: What beliefs contributed to skills builders’ success in college courses? How relevant were completed courses to skills builders’ educational goals? How relevant were completed courses to future job opportunities?

The study found that skills builders were more likely to be over 35, female, employed, earning at least $50K annually, and possess at least an associate degree before attending the community college. Most often, once their goals were met, they left the college. These results were consistent with previous research indicating skills builders are more likely to be nontraditional students (aged 25+), have clear academic goals, take specific courses and exit once they complete the courses of interest. Only 30% of those surveyed intended to return to college. These results may be attributed to findings that 79% of skills builders surveyed in the study were employed and guided by employer and industry needs. 

Dr. Terry CalawayDr. Terry CalawayWhen exploring the demographics of age and prior education level, skills builders differentiate from non-completers and degree/transfer students, who were more likely to be younger and less educated. In addition, when analyzing factors associated with motivation, skills builders were influenced by the value aspect of their education, such as gathering knowledge from experts in the field and using education to grow in their life and career. 

In short, skills builders are a unique student population who seek additional knowledge and skills to expand their employment opportunities. The following recommendations are provided for community colleges that seek to serve these students:

Changing Outcome Metrics: Skills builders are found to be motivated by different factors than non-completers and degree/transfer students, hence they should be assessed by a different outcome measure than currently utilized. It is essential that colleges, and the states within which they reside, begin to clarify the educational goals used within the community college system, more deeply analyzing this group, and presenting information to stakeholders within the college and the local business community.

Increase Data Accessibility: As skills builders are a specialized subsection of a college student base, with significant growth potential, make data more accessible at each and every level where decisions are made on curricula, scheduling, and programming. 

Course Creation/Expansion: Using new metrics will enable college leaders to analyze skills-related courses taken over the past few semesters. A schedule can then be created for these students, including priority registration for skills builder-specific courses.

Dr. Margaretta MathisDr. Margaretta MathisMarketing Opportunities: Colleges are urged to begin to target emails and other advertising campaigns crafted toward potential students interested in skills-related courses. It is recommended to include ancillary benefits of attendance, such as resume workshops and job boards.

Creating an Advisory Board: A focused advisory board can communicate college goals and provide stakeholder insights into new and emerging skills local businesses need from employees. Business site visits and externships add to the understanding and collaboration between community college faculty/staff and employers. These changes promise to better connect businesses to the process and build confidence in available skills training.

Understanding who skills builders are, and their particular needs and motivations, can contribute to the success of this focused student population, as well as to current and potential employers.    

- Dr. Beth Allan-Bentley serves as assistant professor, business, College of the Desert (Calif.). She is a 2021 Bellwether Dissertation Award Nominee. 

Dr. Terry Calaway serves as professor of practice, Community College Leadership Program (CCLP), John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership; Chair, Kansas State University’s CCLP National Advisory Board; and president emeritus, Johnson County Community College (Kan.). 

Dr. Margaretta Mathis serves as senior director and professor of practice, John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Kansas State University. 

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.

This article originally appeared in the January 20, 2022 edition of Diverse. Read it here.

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