Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, California Community Colleges
The head of California Community Colleges discusses partnering with businesses to train and reskill the workforce and his role in reimagining the current education model through online learning.
The global economy is in the midst of rapid transformation. Across industries, digital technologies are destroying established business models and creating new ones, which has led to a shortfall of qualified workers to fill open positions. Requirements are changing so rapidly that many workers who have been with companies for years wouldn’t be considered today for those same jobs without additional credentials. It’s little wonder that upskilling and reskilling have become a top priority for companies and government administrators alike.
US community colleges—and comparable postsecondary schools in other countries—have a critical role to play. Long important players in vocational education and workforce development, their traditional focus on technical skills and industry-specific certifications have made them indispensable to sectors from manufacturing to healthcare. And with an expansive network of institutions across the country, community colleges are well placed to serve both traditional students and adult workers seeking to expand their skills and expertise.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the sprawling California Community Colleges system, understands intimately how integral these institutions are to the continued vitality of a changing economy. His vantage point isn’t just professional but personal: Oakley’s experience as a community college graduate has indelibly shaped his views on the system’s role in creating a qualified workforce. We recently sat down with Chancellor Oakley at his office in Sacramento, California, to discuss the future of public colleges, the importance of public–private partnerships, and the potential of technology and online learning.
McKinsey: How would you characterize the ability of public education in the US to meet the needs of today’s economy?
Eloy Ortiz Oakley: Our educational model often no longer works. The current pipeline consists of K–12 education, a four-year institution or a community college education followed by a transfer to a four-year university, and then sometimes graduate school. It is a very siloed process with rigidly segregated levels of higher education.
Instead, we may need to think about a K–14 model. We’ve seen some success with this approach across the country. P-tech is a great example: it is a six-year high-school program, developed through a public–private partnership, that allows students to graduate with both their high school and associates degrees. This model truly prepares students for the future of work.
McKinsey: What is the role of community colleges in preparing people for the workforce?
Eloy Ortiz Oakley: Whether students are coming to us right out of high school, after serving in the military, or from the workforce to reskill after a layoff, community colleges are a great fit. So many people who were able to get good jobs coming out of high school now need additional skills, often because employers are demanding postsecondary credentials.
Community colleges have both experienced faculty and support systems in place. And we open our doors to all students, regardless of where they have been, how they did in high school, or how they have done in life.
McKinsey: What are some of the ways your community college system is using technology to help students navigate through higher education?
Eloy Ortiz Oakley: One of the challenges in community colleges is that we have historically placed students in what we call remedial or developmental education classes based on their standardized test scores. That’s a disservice to these individuals because it doesn’t really represent how well they can do in college.
We are doing a tremendous amount of work to better understand students’ skills and talents, and to place them in college in a way that allows them to progress as quickly as possible. We’re getting much better information and using predictive analytics to better understand students’ educational attainment when they come to us and determine which courses they should be taking. For example, to place students today, we’re taking high school transcript data and creating algorithms that we call Multiple Measures Assessment and Placement (MMAP) models. These MMAPs will improve as we gain access to more and more data about a student’s life experiences—education, work, internships, clubs, activities and so on. As we get better at collecting that data, the MMAPs will give us much better information on how to personalize education for each individual. We want to be able to tailor an educational experience personally for you the day you walk in the door and having access to data is going to give us that opportunity. Students will be much better placed than just walking into a class of 50 as one of many, where our faculty and staff see only the average of what’s going on in that classroom.
So many people who were able to get good jobs coming out of high school now need additional skills, often because employers are demanding postsecondary credentials.
McKinsey: Community colleges have increasingly been working with the private sector on training programs and curriculums. What are the elements of effective public–private partnerships?
Eloy Ortiz Oakley: The employer–community college partnership is critical to ensure that the private sector has the workforce it needs to grow. We see the economy changing right before our eyes, so without this strong partnership we’re going to fail to educate a sufficient pool of workers.
We need employers that are invested in the future of public higher education to be at the table, helping us to design curriculum and advising us on how to upskill and reskill the workforce. For example, Genentech in the northern San Francisco Bay Area, has partnered with colleges such as Solano Community College to create and prepare an entry-level workforce. Solano Community College in partnership with Genentech has also developed a bachelor’s degree that feeds into its particular industry, enabling more folks in the workforce to move into management positions.
Most companies understand the value of partnering with broad-access public education institutions. Whether they are an automotive manufacturer or a tech company, they are already spending to train new employees, reskill them as workers progress through the ranks, and retain talent in a tight labor market. Community colleges are the ideal partner: we’re already here, we’re affordable to many students, and we’re located throughout the country. Moreover, we’re designed to adapt to the changes in the workforce much more quickly than public or private university systems can.
McKinsey: So how do you pitch a community college student alongside a student from a top-name university?
Eloy Ortiz Oakley: Part of the challenge we have today is the way that we communicate value is the diploma that you offer on your résumé. Not that one degree is better than the other, but if you have a degree from an Ivy League school, that communicates a certain value, while a degree from a public university conveys a different value. In the future, I think we’re going to rely less on where a degree came from and more on the entire picture of degrees, experience, and demonstrable skills. That’ll force us to reassess the value we create through our credentials.
The goal, really, is about building a portfolio so that people can accumulate and demonstrate knowledge to an employer. The challenge for us is, how do we take a student’s information over a lifetime and package it in a portfolio of skills for an employer, including education, military service, and skills gained as an adult learner? Think about how employers are screening applicants. They’re using various algorithms and predictive analytics to screen applicants out on a number of criteria. Applicants rarely get a chance to sit in front of people anymore for a first interview.
McKinsey: Are you talking about a digital portfolio of some sort?
Eloy Ortiz Oakley: Yes, I think having a digital portfolio is the wave of the future. Right now, every time you apply for a job or go to school for an advanced degree, you have to request your transcript from the university you last attended. That is such an outdated way of helping us understand what your skills and talents are.
In contrast, LinkedIn, Indeed, or any of the other job services are essentially digital packages. They capture work experience and duration, education, membership in different organizations, and hobbies and interests. We have also seen advances in student portfolios.
It’s really about how we package all of these skills in a way that’s transferrable and follows individuals throughout their career. It’s unclear what that will look like, but I think being able to demonstrate the accumulation of all your talents and experiences is a much better way of understanding how you’re going to fit into my company or my venture than just a college diploma.