The NationSwell Council is made up of social impact-oriented leaders and changemakers who are committed to pioneering solutions in order to better their communities — and the world around them. In NationSwell’s latest series, “Five Minutes With…,” we sit down with members of our community whose exemplary leadership deserves a deeper dive. Here’s what Dr. Larry Johnson, President of CUNY’s Guttman Community College, had to share with us:

NationSwell: What does an equitable, human-centered future of work look like? 

Dr. Larry Johnson: The future of work will require a change in perspective from a nuanced 40-hour a week schedule wherein employees are glued to a cubicle or office to one of flexibility—understandably, this will vary based on the scope of one’s position. The recent environmental health crisis (COVID-19) challenged the status quo as we know it. K-12 and higher education organizations learned something that private corporations already knew—employee productivity can be maximized through remote work assignments.  

Additionally, there must be an equity lens applied to policies and practices at corporations or institutions. The next generation, and I would argue the present, are values-driven and desire to work at organizations that will allow them to show up their authentic selves and to environments that are embracing of entrepreneurial approaches to achieving organizational outcomes. Thus, the future of work is nimble and inclusive and welcoming to transformation that positions the employee at the core of the institution’s mission, values, goals, and objectives.  

NationSwell: How does the work you’re driving today help to build that future? 

Dr. Larry Johnson: Two-year colleges provide people with the skills and competencies to compete in a global marketplace. Specifically, community colleges are designed to teach students technical skills in programs such as Nursing, Cybersecurity, Transportation, Dental Hygiene, EMT, for example, or transfer to four-year colleges or universities. While community colleges differ across the United States, the mission of these institutions remain consistent—prepare students for gainful employment. Each vocation has a seminal connection to driving the future of work.  

At Guttman Community College, faculty, staff, and administrators are employing best practices around career readiness and implementing strategies that will prepare students for success. Through the Ethnographies of Work (EOW) courses, students participate in work-based learning—a first-year requirement. These experiential learning initiatives expose students to various organizations and occupations. In so doing, students are better equipped to choose a career pathway. An anchor program to the Guttman model, the EOW program has been replicated by some K-12 organizations, four-year institutions, and work-based. 

NationSwell: What inspires or motivates you — personally and professionally — to do this work?  

Dr. Larry Johnson: I am inspired when people with whom I partner and/or lead achieve their dreams. In private reflections, I consider decisions that resulted in barriers being removed that have impacted student, employees, or the institution. Additionally, the joy in witnessing students commence from the institution is the climactic moment that solidifies my purpose. 

What further motivates me about this work is the revelation that learners arrive with abstract ideas that are honed to solidify one’s purpose and future impact—and that is what is important to me. Further, and in the case of my commitment to community colleges, these moments serve as a reminder of the significance of two-year institutions in improving lives—emotionally, socially, and most importantly, financially.  

NationSwell: What are some promising signs from the impact you’re driving? 

Dr. Larry Johnson: There is a heightened interest by corporations and non-profit leaders to partner with two-year institutions to amplify the value of certificates, micro-credentials, and associate degrees. Several sectors were impacted by COVID-19. Two-year colleges are poised to develop the short-term and long-term credentials to support growth in the region. Conversations with various industry professionals reveal employers are more receptive to hiring students with credentials from community colleges. Institutions like Guttman are engaging workforce leaders to ensure that future credentials meet industry demand. 

NationSwell: What are some of the challenges you’re facing? How can NationSwell’s social impact community of practice help you with those challenges? 

Dr. Larry Johnson: College leaders, faculty, and staff are faced with many challenges that go beyond being sources of knowledge to now serving as safe-havens—providing essential resources for students who are, oftentimes, housing or food insecure. Additionally, access to mental health support is a disparity that impacts low-income and under-resourced communities and institutions may not be as resourced to provide the type of counseling a student requires.  

NationSwell is positioned to highlight this topic as a social justice and moral imperative. Convening educators from K-12 to post-secondary institutions to exchange discourse around best practices would increase awareness that may lead funders to support initiatives aimed at supporting already established programs that will allow institutions to scale programs and supporter more students.  

NationSwell: What’s your call to action to anyone who reads this Q+A? 

Dr. Larry Johnson: It is my hope that this correspondence serves as a clarion call — to business and industry leaders — to engage with community colleges around establishing mentorship and paid internship programs, to name a few. And, finally, two-year institutions should receive the same financial support and recognition in strengthening the economy as more than half of four-year graduates began at two-year institutions as revealed in the 2019 National Survey of College Graduates

Dr. Larry Johnson, Jr., is an equity-minded student advocate with nearly 20 years of higher education experience.  Selected by the CUNY Board of Trustees on February 1, 2021, to be the College’s second president, he assumed the presidency on July 1, 2021. If you’re interested in learning more, please get in touch.