McKinsey Digital

Because of increased unemployment from COVID-19 and the recently-funded Pledge to Advance Connecticut, or PACT, which made the education free for at least this coming fall semester, we should expect an increase in Connecticut Community College applications and enrollment more than normal.

Lawmakers will, no doubt, cite the increase in unemployment and the expected increase in CTCC enrollment this fall as a reason to extend PACT, whose $3 million price tag was funded by drawing down reserve education funds. As they carry on this debate, I’d encourage them to clarify what they hope to get out of PACT. Free community college may promote education equity, but if the goal of PACT is a more employable labor force, then it is important to have a strategy not solely focused on traditional two- or four-year degree completion.


A postsecondary education  degree is not a cure-all for employment: if completed (not a given), the benefit for individuals is not as great as the overall data suggests. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2017, the national unemployment rate for associates degree holders, age 25-34 was 4.2%, while it was 8.2% for high school degree holders. On average, the state would have to educate 25 people in order for one additional person to become employed.

Many of the arguments for investing in higher education relate to preparing a labor force for a world of automation. The COVID-19 shutdowns will probably hasten the replacement of humans by robots in jobs where possible, but even higher education can’t protect workers from being automated out of their job.

Associates-degree holders seem particularly vulnerable to automation. A recent Bookings Institute study  found that 29% of registered nurses and 38% of computer programmers risk being automated out of their job. According to a 2016 McKinsey report, the people most protected from automation are those working in unpredictable environments that require critical thinking and human interaction. Jobs that require work experience but not degrees, such as frontline supervisory roles, fall into this category. If education is costly in terms of time that could be spent meeting family obligations or pursuing shorter alternative degrees, or gaining work experience, we want to ensure we are not urging young people to pursue degrees that may lead to more vulnerable jobs.

Of course, there is plenty of room for improvement in the employability of our labor force, but before jumping to long-held assumptions about the benefits of a two- or four-year  degree, let us consider alternatives.

First and foremost, let’s look at offering expedited degrees, micro-degrees and certificate programs. These can prepare our job-seekers for technical roles that don’t require full degrees, moving our young adults through the education system faster. The 10-month Advanced Manufacturing degree in the CTCC system, with 98% job placement, is a promising example. New Haven’s Holberton Computer Programming School, which takes no payment until graduates begin earning money with their degrees, is a non-CTCC example. Americans are well aware of the demands for reskilling and further education in our rapidly-changing work landscape, but they report a strong preference for non-degree and certificate programs over degree programs: 68% of those surveyed nationally reported a preference for non-degree programs.  Let’s take those preferences into consideration as we build out our Community College programs.

Second, let’s make our workforce flexible and valued regardless of what they’ve studied by training our students to be resourceful problem solvers and to work well with others. Embedding guided team projects with a focus on the collaborative aspects of work into all CTCC programs and pedagogy is one way to do this.

Finally, let’s invest in the career counseling offered through the community college system. Occupational psychology research like the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). MBI has  found that people whose personalities align with the demands of their job are more likely to excel and less likely to suffer from burnout. One evaluation of a worker-retraining program  found it to be mostly ineffective, but the people who received counseling on which training program to choose were more likely to secure jobs in their new field, earning an additional $5,000 – $6,000. When a knowledgeable counselor helps people identify a career that is a good fit for them, they are more likely to excel professionally in their new job.

While two- and four-year degrees have traditionally been touted as a foolproof buffer during recessions, this is no normal recession that we are in. Connecticut’s leaders must scrutinize long-held assumptions about the benefits of degrees versus certificates and sub-baccalaureate programs in job placement, and look toward more creative ways to help workers prepare for Connecticut’s post-COVID economy and our long-term goal of building a happy, stable, and productive workforce.

Sara Nadel, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer of StellarEmploy, which uses data to help companies make smarter hiring decisions and reduce turnover. She lives in Branford.

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