Workforce partnerships missing their full potential

New research by the Harvard Business School in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) shows a significant disconnect between community colleges and business and industry when it comes to collaborating on workforce development.

Community colleges have been lauded as critical engines to U.S. workforce and economic development, and recent education partnerships between public two-year colleges and large technology companies such as Dell Technologies, Intel, Google and Amazon, have grabbed national headlines, but lukewarm responses from businesses found in surveys for the Harvard research indicate many still don’t see community colleges as part of their workforce development plan.

In response to how important they believe it is for employers and community colleges to partner to produce a work-ready workforce, 59% of employers and 98% of community colleges said it was “very important,” with 32% of employers and 2% of community colleges saying it was “somewhat important.”

In addition, only 26% of surveyed businesses said they “strongly agreed” and 36% “agreed” that community colleges are producing the work-ready employees that their company needs. Nearly one in four employers neither agreed or disagreed.

Seeing that less than 60% of businesses felt the partnership was “very important” is a red flag and a call to action for the community college sector to further develop a “clear and unequivocal case” for support of these programs, said AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus. That starts with better communication, he said.

“Businesses need to be clear about the skills needed for their workforce, and colleges need to clearly articulate how they can provide relevant training,” Bumphus said.

Seeking more input

The 82-page report — which is based on a comprehensive look at community college/business workforce development partnerships that includes research, interviews and surveys with community college and business leaders — found that many community colleges don’t feel employers are engaged enough with them, making it difficult to determine the education and training needed for quality middle-skill jobs. For example, college officials indicate they struggle to get employers involved in curriculum development or to provide information on how needed skills are changing.

“The net result is a middle-skills environment in disequilibrium, underserving the needs of aspiring workers, employers, and ultimately, communities,” says the report from Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work.

The report sheds light on how businesses and colleges view their partnerships, including how they see themselves and each other. For instance, community colleges tend to be more satisfied with their efforts in the partnership than employers. The survey found that 93% of surveyed community college leaders gave employers a “B” grade or lower for their collaborations. Only 7% of community colleges gave employers an “A” grade, a rating of “very satisfied.” By contrast, 28% of employers gave themselves an “A.”

The findings also show that two-year college leaders don’t see high rates of hiring commitments from employers. Only 11% of community college leaders believed that their local employers’ were willing to set hiring targets, and only 10% believed employers would offer job guarantees to students who completed a program. In fact, out of a list of more than 40 actions for collaboration, they were least likely to take action pertaining to student job placement.

But the report also shows community colleges have gaps in their understanding of employers and employees. For example, almost two-thirds (64%) of community college leaders indicated that they did not know what percentage of their students were working learners, “a critical consideration in designing and delivering curriculum,” the report says.

In all, the misalignment has a cyclic effect:

“Businesses complain they cannot find the talent they need and turn to automation, outsourcing, offshoring, and contingent labor to access skills. Students lose faith in the promise of accessible post-secondary education, leading them to pursue jobs with limited career prospects. Educators sense the inadequacy of their curriculum and are discouraged when local employers show no desire to engage with them. Policymakers feel frustrated that ‘workforce development’ efforts fail to bolster employment and attract investment. They resort to encouraging training programs around fads — biotech here, fintech, there — while often overlooking demand in local healthcare and financial services, light manufacturing and construction, and logistics.”

Not opting to partner

The survey shows that employers systematically under-invest in their relationships with community colleges. When presented with a list of more than 40 actions for collaboration, there was no action that more than 60% of employers implemented. By contrast, community college leaders cited 32 actions that 75% to 100% of educators surveyed confirmed their institution was taking the action to promote collaboration with employers.

Why the low engagement? The report says employers think that they can readily find talent in the open or “spot” market. As many as 47% of employers surveyed believed it was more cost-effective to hire talent from the open market rather than invest in training new talent. Only 22% of employers disagreed.

“Investing time and effort partnering with community colleges is not seen as easy or efficient,” the report says.

Employers also don’t think colleges are flexible enough to change with employer demands, the report says. But employers also aren’t providing the resources to help nurture those changes, which hampers colleges’ ability to produce the right workers.

Business leaders also believe community colleges are resistant to curriculum change, the report says. As high as 43% of all employers surveyed agreed that community colleges lack the mandate or culture to develop programs that align with what employers seek.

Even when there appears to be common ground on certain workforce approaches, conversations often don’t extend to addressing key challenges to make partnerships more successful. For example, 51% of employers support the idea that students should be paid for work-based learning experiences. Yet, only 39% of community college leaders are confident that employers are willing to pay students in such programs.

“Employers’ approach to collaborating with educators reflected a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the report says. “Employers expected only a marginal return on their investment in the relationship with community colleges, so they capped the investment and, thus, guaranteed themselves a marginal return.”

To a degree, many business leaders themselves don’t appear to know what skills they want in their workers. Just over half of business leaders surveyed were unable to assert that they knew which skills they were hiring for: 30% said they did not know which skills they were looking for in new hires while another 21% neither agreed nor disagreed.

“While they were critical of the skills community college graduates possess and the rate at which
new hires become productive, only one in four employers could claim that they were transparent in communicating their hiring needs to educators,” the report says.

Plan for action

Despite the dim appraisal, the report says things can improve. It requires community college educators and business executives alike to accept that change is needed. At the top of the list: involving senior leaders from colleges and businesses, something that rarely happens but is recognized as critical to changing a culture.

The report continues that businesses need to take the lead in any such effort, given their control over the “most relevant currency in this market”: jobs. But there are other crucial benefits from strong workforce ties related to social mobility and equity.

“It is important to remember that community colleges serve the majority of the nation’s under-resourced populations,” Bumphus said. “The programs that come from these partnerships are sometimes the only pathway for students to enter the workforce in a way that allows them to earn good wages. If we as a nation are committed to ensuring that all of our citizens have opportunities to succeed, then we need to ensure that community college students are at the center of the commitment.”

The Harvard report provides a framework for areas of collaboration between community colleges and employers. The three goals are:

  • Partner with each other to offer training and education that is aligned with industry needs.
  • Establish relationships with each other that result in the recruitment and hiring of students and graduates.
  • Make supply and demand decisions that are informed by the latest data and trends.

It provides nine strategies around these goals, such as: incorporating classroom experiences that simulate real-world settings and scenarios; developing commitments for hiring and recruitment; and building mechanisms to jointly monitor and improve the supply and demand for talent.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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