T.E.A. with College Futures featuring Dr. Su Jin Jez

Welcome to T.E.A. with College Futures, a monthly feature dedicated to Talking Equity in Action with grantees, partners, and College Futures Foundation staff. Each month, we’ll highlight efforts addressing inequities in and around higher education and related to socio-economic mobility, and seek learnings and inspirations directly from changemakers.

California Competes

In August of 2023, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order launching a new coordinated education effort to prepare learners for the workforce of tomorrow. The executive order directs leaders across the state to develop a Master Plan for Career Education focused on “creating stronger coordination mechanisms, building skills-based pathways, expanding work-based learning, and increasing access to public benefits and career pathways.” The Newsom Administration intends for this work to break down long-standing silos between sectors – an aim California Competes, a policy and research organization, worked to accomplish through the Los Angeles County 2nd District California Community Colleges Career Ready Pilot (LA2CCC). Dr. Su Jin Jez, chief executive officer of California Competes, shares more about LA2CCC’s origin and success, including key learnings for bolstering cross-sector collaboration.


Q. The Los Angeles County 2nd District California Community Colleges Career Ready Pilot was first launched in 2022. Can you share the pilot’s origin story?

A. The prologue to the pilot started with work we were initially doing with one college, Compton College, around career readiness and thinking about it being an institution-wide responsibility. And as we did this work with Compton and engaged their general partners, it was really clear that this work shouldn’t be the work of one college alone. Compton was but one entity in this community really focused on improving the lives of residents through more education to get better jobs. As Compton College’s president, President Curry, and I were thinking about how to have a bigger impact and how to accelerate progress for the institution and the residents, we thought about broadening this work to the subregion. If you think of Los Angeles County as a giant region, then you can think of central Los Angeles as a subregion. So this initiative, we call it the Los Angeles County Second District California Community College Career Ready Pilot – LA2CCC for short – is aimed at reshaping how higher ed institutions and the county work together to improve career opportunities for residents.


Q. When you launched LA2CCC, you remarked that “career readiness is a shared responsibility”. Tell us more about who shares this responsibility and how.

A. When I say that career readiness is a shared responsibility, I mean it in two main ways. First, at a more macro level, colleges and local governments have this common goal of promoting the economic success of their communities. Colleges want to increase enrollment and improve their students’ outcomes, and they can do this by providing programs that have a clear connection to careers, so students have this clear line of sight and know where they’re going. This is something we see from other research: having a guaranteed job outcome or clarity that this program is going to result in better pay at the end is really important for students to go to college and then also to persist. For government entities, like counties and cities, they’re all working to advance the wellbeing of their constituents and they can do so by strengthening pathways to college and family-wage jobs in the area. Employers are also critical in this work. Employers are keen to foster a robust talent pool to bolster their bottom line, particularly in California where our economy is increasingly a knowledge-driven economy, so having skilled workers is fundamental to the success of almost every industry in our state. Employers can be part of the shared responsibility by working with colleges and with cities and counties who are working to create this seamless journey from education and training to sustainable, living-wage job opportunities. And of course, residents themselves. People are seeking economic mobility and security. So if you think about these entities – the person, the employer, the city or county, the college or university – they are different but they all have this shared responsibility to support the resident in climbing that economic ladder through more education and a better job.

Secondly, at the organization level, it’s ensuring that career readiness is central to the work that they do and that it’s a responsibility across the organization. When we started off the work with Compton, we really focused on how to make sure that career readiness is something that everyone understands is their responsibility. Whether you’re a faculty member in history, or someone in the career center, the community engagement officer, the deans, the chief financial officer and the institutional effectiveness vice president – everyone should be thinking about how their role supports career readiness of students. For employers, it’s not just the chief people officer in HR who should be thinking about the talent pool. Everyone has a shared responsibility around development and career readiness and recruitment. 


Q. Walk us through the process of establishing a shared vision across the postsecondary, industry, county and community partners involved in this pilot. 

A. It’s hard work and it’s complicated, but it’s ultimately really rewarding. For this work we partnered with 4 community colleges all in LA County’s Second District. We also had LA County represented by two main entities: the Department of Economic Opportunity and representatives from LA County Second District Supervisor Holly Mitchell’s office. So we ended up with 6 entities representing 4 different governments. We worked with these partners with the goal of refining and strengthening this culture of career readiness as a subregion-wide responsibility. So we did this through 3 main phases. The first was a discovery phase. This is where we aimed to develop an understanding of each entity and how they approached career readiness and see where connections and/or improvements could be made. As a research organization, we started with research. We interviewed representatives from all of the entities and their external stakeholders, reviewed whatever documents we could get hold of – their internal strategic plan, their organizational structure, their budgets, proposals they had sent out for funding related to career readiness – to understand how they are operating and how they are working together. We put together findings and recommendations for each of the partners and then we laid out findings and recommendations for the partnership as a whole: what are opportunities for them to work together and what are some of the things we saw as we looked at how they were working together already (or not). The next phase was the strategy development phase. With our findings and recommendations out, we brought the partners together to really dig into where they see things going, and how do you scale or how do you plan for these changes? We worked with them to identify the points of connection they wanted to work on together, we helped them facilitate relationships and figure out what they wanted to do together. That led us into our next phase around implementation and evaluation, where we supported the execution of this plan as thought partners, as critical friends, as cheerleader friends. These partners are at once tasked with doing what they have been doing while also designing for and driving significant change, so we’re the friend to remind them and ask them, ‘How are you engaging with employers? Did you connect with LA County about this particular program?” That’s our role. 

Higher ed really is structured to compete not to collaborate. There are lots of disincentives for working with a partner college. But these are incredible partners who saw the vision and did the work, which we think is a good way for them to grow their capacity and develop systems and not be dependent on an external entity to do that for them. The work continues today.

Q. How did you all keep equity at the center of this work?

A. Equity is really embedded in all of our work but there are some really concrete things about LA County’s Second District. We were very strategic in thinking about where we wanted this work to be. LA County’s Second District – at the time we launched the project and likely still remains – was one of the most economically disadvantaged and underinvested districts in LA. It was also hardest hit economically from the pandemic and I’m sure this extends to health impacts too. In July 2021, the unemployment rate in the city of Compton was 14.3 percent, which was substantially higher than LA County at 10.2 percent and the whole state at 7.9 percent. 

As we did this work, we were really focused on career readiness for the highest need students of the community and those that were prospective students who hadn’t entered through the college doors yet but we knew needed to be served. We really looked for solutions that considered the needs of students of color, particularly Black, Latinx, and Native American students, students from low-income backgrounds, and student parents who have dramatically greater needs because the cost of childcare in our state is unaffordable everywhere and is much more expensive than tuition. So basic needs did come up as a key part of the strategy for the county’s role in this partnership because the county could support students more robustly around basic needs than the colleges could. The county could also subsidize work-based learning. We know that work-based learning is really critical for students to be able to transition to good jobs but so much of work-based learning is unpaid which is not accessible if you need to work. 


Q. As you think about the cross-sector career readiness efforts expanding across the state, what are some of the learnings and opportunities you hope to incorporate from this pilot? 

A. This is a really big and ambitious project to be clear. The things that make me excited are that these partners came together and they are doing the work. When I talk to folks from other regions they are asking if we can do this work here so I think there is a real appetite from leaders in higher education, local government, employers, and community-based organizations to work together to solve these problems. People are increasingly recognizing that these really complex social issues require a collaborative and networked approach to solve. That was a big ah-ha to us. This was not just Su Jin and President Curry and our crazy ideas, of which we have plenty. When we were able to bring these pilot partners together through the initiative, they were able to make some really important cross-sector connections and implement some great events and initiatives. Events were some of the first things that came out of this work, which are nice relationship-building strategies. Events are not yet systems change YET, but it brings partners together around a shared goal that is concrete and tangible and launches them toward their bigger vision. 

Some of the challenges we see in this work moving forward is this lack of an exoskeleton for regional work. Leaders are designing what they need, they’re hitting a wall, and they’re redesigning. What we’re seeing that is challenging but is also a real opportunity is the number of new initiatives the state has launched over the past few years that aren’t reaching their intended target. There is a lot of money out there, but you have to know about it, have the capacity to apply for it, get the funding, and then implement. Leaders have to be very clever about how to leverage the one-time dollars without completely restructuring their institutions because these dollars will be gone one day, but they know their residents could really use the opportunities. Thinking through all of this was the impetus of our initial work with Compton College. 

How does our state need to be structured to more effectively implement cross-sector programs that aim to bridge education and employment? This is something this partnership is working on that I think will be informative to state policy efforts. We’re seeing a lot of really exciting things. I’m hopeful these residents of LA County Second District will have a pretty seamless experience on the path to a better job through postsecondary education. This is just the beginning.     


Q. What’s next for your career readiness body of work? 

A. At California Competes, we believe deeply that these reforms, particularly ones that are around work and the economy, must have a regional focus because of the economic diversity of our regions. As we did this work in LA, we had this sense around our findings that they are likely somewhat universal, but we’re not sure. We would love to be able to understand challenges and opportunities across our state in different regions, particularly as we are thinking about state policy to support regional efforts. We’re based in Oakland and we thought it would be great if we could do some of this work in the Bay Area. The Bay Area is a very different region than LA. The Bay Area has the highest levels of educational attainment in our state; we have one of the most inequitable economies in our state; we have some of the wealthiest and most selective universities in our state; and we also have a large number of community colleges that are open access. We began to really think about what the Bay Area emphasis would be, who would be great to work with, so we spent a year really digging into these questions and trying to understand that. We will hopefully be announcing some really fun work in the Bay Area. Stay tuned!