A Commitment to 21st Century Worker Skills

Tapping the Resources of America's Community Colleges

On April 23, 2009, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson introduced H.R. 2060, and, on August 8, 2009, Senator Chuck Schumer introduced companion legislation, S. 1614. The legislation, known as the The Community College Technology Access Act of 2009, is based on a paper written in 2007 by NDN Globalization Initiative Chair Dr. Robert Shapiro called Tapping the Resources of America’s Community Colleges: A Modest Proposal to Provide Universal Computer Training. The legislation offers free computer training to all Americans through the already existing infrastructure of the nation's approximately 1,200 community colleges.

These provisions were recently incorporated into H.R. 3221, The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, as an allowable use. That legislation passed the House of Representatives in September.

Recently in Michigan, President Barack Obama will discuss the crucial role America's community colleges can play in a 21st century economy. Indeed, he has made community colleges a key to his newly emerging economic strategy. In the Washington Post on Sunday, July 12, Obama wrote:

We believe it's time to reform our community colleges so that they provide Americans of all ages a chance to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future. Our community colleges can serve as 21st-century job training centers, working with local businesses to help workers learn the skills they need to fill the jobs of the future. We can reallocate funding to help them modernize their facilities, increase the quality of online courses and ultimately meet the goal of graduating 5 million more Americans from community colleges by 2020.

Following the President's statement, Larson said this about the American Graduation Initiative and H.R. 2060:

President Obama once again displayed his gift for transformational leadership when he announced this morning an innovative initiative to strengthen community colleges across the country so they can build the American workforce of the future.  I am a strong believer that community colleges can be a hub for technology and job training in our communities if they are given the resources that our schools and students need.

I've introduced The Community College Technology Access Act, developed with the support of the NDN, which will open the doors of community college technology labs and training opportunities to the public in order to provide workers who are lacking key computer skills the opportunity to attain them.  By broadening their mission, community colleges have the potential to be a hub to train our workforce for the jobs of the future. My legislation helps them fulfill their potential and boosts local economies around the country.  I commend the President’s leadership on this issue and look forward to working with him on it.

In a Council of Economic Advisors report on the Jobs of the Future, released on July 13, the President's team wrote:

Research suggests that the most valuable credentials are those in quantitatively-oriented fields or high-growth/high-need occupations such as health care. Similarly, evidence from Washington State suggests that displaced workers who attend a community college substantially increase their long-term earnings compared to those who do not. Again, the benefits are greatest for academic courses in math and science as well as courses related to the health professions and other technical fields. These findings point to a powerful role for community college education in helping displaced workers through the current economic downturn, particularly if they take classes in fields related to high-growth industries and occupations.

And, in a New York Times Sunday Magazine interview with David Leonhardt, published on April 28, the President said:

I think everybody needs enough post-high-school training that they are competent in fields that require technical expertise, because it’s very hard to imagine getting a job that pays a living wage without that — or it’s very hard at least to envision a steady job in the absence of that.

And so to the extent that we can upgrade not only our high schools but also our community colleges to provide a sound technical basis for being able to perform complicated tasks in a 21st-century economy, then I think that not only is that good for the individuals, but that’s going to be critical for the economy as a whole.

We congratulate the President on making this an important piece of his economic strategy for America.

H.R. 2060 is part of a broader argument that NDN has been making for some time, that in the globalized, interconnected, technology-dense 21st century economy, facility with and connectivity to the global communications network is central to the life success of any worker or child. The 21st century economy is idea-based, in that most of the value of the large companies at the center of U.S. economy is now determined not by their physical assets, but by their intellectual property. Thriving in such an economy requires 21st century skills.

This argument is expounded upon in a paper written by NDN President Simon Rosenberg and Alec Ross, then with the One Economy and now the Senior Advisor on Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that would put A Laptop in Every Backpack of American sixth graders. Additionally, Tom Kalil, now Deputy Policy Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, continued this narrative, authoring a paper entitled, Harnessing the Mobile Revolution, for NDN’s affiliate, the New Policy Institute. This paper argued that the explosive growth of mobile communications can be a powerful tool for addressing some of the most critical economic, political, and social challenges of the 21st century.

Stay tuned to NDN's Globalization Initiative for additional work on 21st century skills and technology. We believe, just as President Obama has begun to emphasize, that tapping the resources of America's community colleges, putting a laptop in every backpack, and ultimately connecting all Americans and the rest of the world to the global communications network can and must be a hallmark of the economic agenda going forward.

NDN and New Policy Institute Resources on 21st Century Skills:

  • A Laptop in Every Backpack by NDN President Simon Rosenberg and Alec Ross, now the Senior Advisor on Innovation to the Secretary of State