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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the upcoming June/July edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.
As community colleges focus on becoming more efficient and preparing more students for success in a climate of reduced state and federal funding, many institutions are reaching out to neighbors in business and industry, forming partnerships and working together to achieve goals that require money and resources colleges are unlikely to raise on their own.
The decision to work with industry seems like a no-brainer. Local businesses and corporations have a vested interest in seeing students succeed. And community colleges have a reputation for tailoring curricula to local needs.
But forming and maintaining a solid industry partnership takes time. And nothing comes free. Ask Ann McGee, president of Seminole State College of Florida (SSCF). When McGee became president of SCCF in 1996, a member of the local construction industry suggested she pay a visit to state legislative leaders and ask them to fund a new construction-trades classroom building.
“I’d been president for all of a month when the legislative session started. I remember walking into the office of Florida’s senate president and telling her we needed to replace our portable units with a new construction-trades building—funded by the state. She spun me around, directed me out of her office, and told me to go back and see what the industry would do for the college. It was a great lesson for a new president to learn.”
McGee spent the next three years establishing relationships with the construction industry. She jokes that in 120 days she gave 120 speeches, but the reality is that a president must take every opportunity to go out and spread the word of the college.
“Our communities know how much they need us and are hungry for more knowledge about what we do,” she says. “You have to show up at those breakfasts, lunches and dinners and serve on the United Way and Economic Development Council boards. That’s how you meet key business leaders.”
McGee’s three years were well spent; the construction industry partner, for instance, committed to using its workers to build the trades building if the state ponied up the money for the materials. The building opened in 2001.
A necessary reality
Across the country, community college leaders are realizing the benefits of working with industry.
“Partnerships are the new currency for community colleges of the future,” says DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College (MC) in Maryland. “There will be no new resources magically appearing, and no one is going to be handing us money.”
Every relationship needs a quid pro quo. No one understands this better than Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in North Carolina.
“Give value first,” he says. “If you deliver a very good service to a business, they want to reciprocate.”
Zeiss recalls a relationship he formed with Leon Levine, founder of Family Dollar, a nationwide discount retailer with more than 6,800 stores.
“Leon was hard to get to, so I asked one of the college’s donors to introduce me, since they knew each other,” says Zeiss.
That conversation led to an introduction. Eventually, Levine asked Zeiss how he could help. Instead of asking Levine for a donation, Zeiss suggested how the college might help his business. When Levine said he had concerns about warehouse safety, Zeiss suggested that CPCC teach a class in forklift operations and improved safety in the workplace. Levine was thrilled.
A year later, Zeiss invited Levine and his wife to campus.
“We had lunch and I did a presentation that showed them we increased their safety record from 85 percent to 98 percent,” says Zeiss.
Levine responded by making a substantial financial gift.
Keep communication open
Another key to establishing strong relationships is to ensure the college and the business partner clearly understand each other’s mission.
“It’s important to know the value behind each other’s organizations and what each of you wants to accomplish,” says Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College (LCC) in Oregon.
Be open and flexible. Even if your gut reaction is that something won’t work, have an exploratory conversation.
“You never know what might be possible,” says Spilde. “You may go in with one idea and take a completely different road.”
It’s also important to recognize that different organizations have different cultures.
“Often, businesses and higher education use language that doesn’t resonate. We have to recognize that how we talk with each other is important and make sure we don’t make assumptions,” says Spilde. “Part of the job of the partners is to interpret, so everyone can understand.”
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges