Can Community Colleges Prepare the Workforce for Automation?

There’s a popular website making its way through the interwebs these days that asks, “Will Robots Take My Job?” The site allows a user to input one of 702 detailed occupations – from accountant to zoologist, and everything in between – then view an estimated percentage of job loss that occupation will experience due to automation. (“Robots are watching,” the site warns when one searches for the automation risk of bartenders…)

Will Robots Take My Job?Despite its tongue-in-cheek name, Will Robots Take My Job addresses a very real and quickly looming problem: Jobs all across the world, and particularly in the U.S., are at risk of being lost to machine learning, artificial intelligence, automation and… well… robots.

The site is based on a 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” According to their estimates, approximately 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk of being automated over the course of up to two decades. A PricewaterhouseCooper report published in March 2017 puts total job loss at a (comparatively) more conservative 38 percent by 2030. And a “heat map” published by the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis shows major metropolitan areas are likely to see 60% job loss by 2035, in industries ranging from foodservice, office and administrative support, and sales to transportation, healthcare and education.

In fact, it’s already happening. A study published in 2015 by two Ball State University professors, The Myth and Reality of Manufacturing in America, found that 87 percent of manufacturing jobs lost between 2000-2010 were due to automation and more efficient manufacturing processes. A National Bureau of Economic Research report estimates for every industrial robot introduced to the labor market, three jobs are eliminated. Pharmacists rely more than ever on automated dispensaries; Google and others are working on self-driving long-distance trucks.

The scariest part of this outlook is that every time a job is lost to artificial intelligence, a person will lose their paycheck, their career, their way of life…and possibly their sense of self-worth.

What is to happen to the American worker?

Retraining American Workers for Automation

All this talk of job loss may sound dire, but I believe it offers American workers a tremendous opportunity to be retrained in new, highly-skilled, high-paying – and as-yet unheard of, even unimagined – fields.

Christopher Mims at the Wall Street Journal writes, “For all the recent advances in artificial intelligence, such techniques are largely applied to narrow areas, such as recognizing images and processing speech. Humans can do all these things and more, which allows us to transition to new kinds of work.” Exactly! The fact that we are human is what differentiates us from sentient technology – just ask Brian David Johnson – and presents limitless opportunities for reimagining our careers.

Let’s use long distance truck drivers as an example. Self-driving big rigs may make this profession obsolete (for humans) within a decade. But could those drivers not be retrained as, say, a medical assistant, a computer technician or a skilled machinist? Are truck drivers not just as capable of being retrained in a new field of their choosing – or one in line with marketplace demands – as, say, a PR pro who retires from Procter & Gamble after 30 years and decides to try his hand at teaching?

To suggest otherwise insinuates not all people are capable of being lifelong learners or don’t deserve a life of dignity and personal fulfillment… a viewpoint that, in my humble opinion, is flat-out wrong.

Besides, in this particular example, truck drivers are already finding new career paths by working side-by-side with the computer programmers who are trying to automate them out of a job. And according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, employment in both non-routine cognitive and non-routine manual jobs – think management, professional and caregiving occupations – has grown steadily since the 1980s, a trend that is likely to continue even as jobs are lost to automation. Humans’ ability to reason, deduce and make sense of information is what will lead to job growth… not the doom and gloom that Will Robots Take My Job may predict on the surface.

If we’re agreed that automation presents opportunities for job growth, the question becomes: How can we retrain all the people whose jobs will be lost to automation or simply be altered by automation?

Investing in Career Tech and Community Colleges

In order to fully realize the vast potential automation presents to the American job market, the U.S. approach to higher education – and the business community’s over-reliance on a four-year degree – needs to change. As we wait for the four-year schools to adapt, the most obvious place to start retraining workers is within businesses themselves. And that can begin to be accomplished at the career tech (CTE) and community college level.

Career tech schools and community colleges have the agility needed to adjust to changing workforce development and career demands and are well positioned to offer the innovative programming, responsive curriculum and bleeding-edge training required by emergent fields.


  • Because CTE and community colleges typically have fewer administrative layers, they can more quickly and thoroughly devise programs of study, industry credentials, specialized training, degrees and certifications that graduate students from curriculum to career.
  • Open admission policies and comparatively low tuition at community colleges open the door to students whose economic situation might otherwise prevent them from continuing education.
  • There’s an abundance of options! There are at least seven community colleges within 15 minutes of my office, all of which offer a mix of specialized and general courses to help students find their niche. And with greater emphasis on STEM education, CTE high schools have sprung up all over the country, appealing to students for whom a traditional path from high school to college to career may not appeal.

What will it take to get us there? I could go on and on about how community colleges and CTE are both underfunded at alarming rates, but reports from the Urban Institute, The Century Foundation and Advance CTE make pretty compelling arguments on their own.

Instead, I’d like to outline four programs I think would position CTE and community colleges to retrain the American workforce: tax incentives and business partnerships, apprenticeships, degrees and certificates, and alternative credentials.

Tax Incentives and Business Partnerships

What if local, state and federal governments incentivized innovation by offering tax breaks to companies which partner with community colleges to build curriculum based on new and emerging fields? Most states and municipalities already have tax incentives in place to promote or support economic development. In my view, investing in adult education programs designed specifically to address local business needs is simply another form of economic development.  And working one-on-one with local community colleges to drive changes to curriculum at the speed of their evolution will ensure businesses have access to the bright, well-trained talent they need to maintain post-automation growth.


Co-operative learning and internships are popular at all levels of higher ed. But virtually all require some level of investment or experience in the chosen field. At SHP Leading Design, for example, our co-ops and interns are all enrolled in very specific programs such as architecture, interior design, mechanical and electrical engineering and marketing. And this is fine for students who are at the beginning of their careers, but what about adult workers? There must be a way to provide on-the-job training to those who have a proven work history, but no direct experience in the emerging field.

Apprenticeships, designed in collaboration between businesses and community colleges or CTEs, provide the perfect solution. Educational institutions could provide valuable yet basic retraining services, based on the emergent needs of its local business partners, while businesses could commit to providing hands-on training and field experience. Employees would benefit by developing new skills and finding a new job; community colleges and CTE would benefit by filling a critical need in the local community (not to mention an influx of private investment dollars); and businesses would benefit from a workforce pipeline that has been custom-trained for their particular needs or industry.

Plus, there are currently 12 states that offer tax credits for businesses employing apprentices.  While some apply only to younger, “traditional” college students, others apply to adult learners as well. In addition, there are 12 states which offer tuition assistance for people who are in apprentice roles. In other words, additional avenues of financial support already exist to complement this effort.

Degrees and Certificates

Community colleges, in particular, have evolved when it comes to pursuing a degree or certificate. Want to work at a golf course? Be sure to get your Turf Grass Management certificate. Interested in airplanes? Maybe the Avionics certificate is right for you. Degrees and certifications can be earned in all manner of fields: business, computers, education, environment, public safety, transportation and more. They take much less time to obtain. And they require fewer general education or pre-requisite credits to pursue.

Given these factors and the ever-quickening pace of technological innovation in this country, the time is right now to help businesses think beyond only considering a four-year degree – especially in emergent fields with no real career path precedent – and toward the associate’s degrees and certifications that demonstrate both interest in and mastery of a given topic. But it’s incumbent upon community colleges, as well as their graduates, to make this assertion. To make this shift, we must open and deepen the conversation between CTE schools, community colleges and the businesses they serve, demonstrate the quality of education students receive, and prove value beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Besomebody is already testing this theory. The company offers short, affordable Besomebody Paths: one-time courses focused on helping students attain skills and jobs in wellness, health, hospitality, automotive, animal care, and sales and entrepreneurship fields. Each course is sponsored by a business, with hands-on, experiential instruction designed specifically to that business’ needs. Jobs are guaranteed to graduates upon successful completion of their Path. It’s an intriguing – not to mention, disruptive – approach to moving students from curriculum to career.

Alternative Credentials

Likewise, digital badges and verified certificates need to be more widely accepted. As the latest forms of non-degree credentialing, alternative credentials already complement four-year degrees. When attached to or offered by a formal learning institution, like a community college or CTE, do they have the power to stand on their own? Can amassing and validating discrete skills, competencies and online course participation advance a displaced workforce? And given the speed at which a digital badge or course can be designed, updated, offered and completed, is this the wave of the future? It’s highly probable, especially when combined with some of the other ideas in this post.

A Bold Vision

Just imagine the possibilities if all of this was happening at once! A business approaches its community college to develop a new online course that will award a digital badge in XYZ. It receives a tax credit for doing so, and the community college receives the much-needed funding it needs to design and implement the course.

Through outreach programs to the local community, the college identifies workers whose jobs have been or will quickly be lost to automation. For a small fee – which might even be covered under the auspices of the business partnership – five workers are retrained for an emerging need at a business in their local community. Upon earning their badge, the workers apprentice at the local business, applying their newfound skills on the job.

One of the workers might even love this emerging field so much that she or he goes back to the community college to earn more certificates in that field. Now that person’s new skillset is even more in-demand, and with the advanced training, their earning potential is higher.

It may sound utopian, but I believe this bold vision is possible, even attainable. And just maybe, by opening up new educational and economic opportunities, we might restore the dignity and sense of self-worth a person may have lost when robots first “took” their job.