How Chambers of Commerce Connections Can Help Align Programming with Workforce NeedsCindy Miller | Director of Columbia College Global Civilian Region 2 and Director of Columbia College Kansas City, Columbia College
Colleges offering degree programs that target working adults are no stranger to the concept of membership in their local chambers. Getting involved, attending different events, and volunteering to serve on committees enables academic administrators to network with businesses. Frequent and aggressive networking leads to high visibility for the institution, which in turn leads to greater credibility and ultimately, trust. People make referrals to those they know. Becoming a trusted member of the community through the chamber of commerce is a no-brainer.
Membership in chambers of commerce doesn’t only benefit postsecondary institutions—chambers themselves benefit from having a ready pool of experts on education-related topics who can contribute to critical issues facing businesses. Additionally, chamber businesses may be able to use a college’s classroom space and/or conference facilities to conduct meetings, workshops, and other company events. Colleges can demonstrate strong advocacy for business by getting involved in the city, county and state workforce development efforts typically endorsed by chambers. These venues provide ample opportunities for college administrators to obtain up-to-date information about the region’s employment profile, as well as predictions for future workforce trends.
By sharing information about workforce demands and predicted trends with faculty, administrators can ensure that their institutions are developing and redeveloping curricula to meet immediate and future regional business needs. More timely and agile responses to changing workforce needs, from retooling course content to creating short term certificate programs, as well as rolling out full-blown degrees, sends a strong message to the business community that the college hears and quickly responds. For example, colleges can offer a solution to a very specific issue by using existing courses to craft a certificate in something immediately relevant for local companies. Remember that these companies will be hiring your graduates, so paying attention to their training issues now is a natural way to solidify the pathway from student to hired employee. Another way to connect to the business community is by asking faculty to develop learning activities related to real business needs, concerns, and issues. Encourage faculty members to partner with external companies who are members of the local chamber for a class-based project.
College administrators can take advantage of knowledgeable chamber members by creating focus groups of local business leaders. Invite them to a luncheon to pick their brains about deficient training areas for their employees. Asking hard questions about your alumni’s performance in those jobs is critical to improving the workforce. Were they well-prepared for their current job? If not, what training experiences should be offered prior to their launch into the working world?
Higher education institutions may already provide entrepreneur support at their small business and tech development centers through one-day seminars and short certification programs. Keep in mind that most chamber members are small business owners—today’s entrepreneurs and innovators. College administrators can take the lead in matching these owners to faculty experts for the purpose of engaging in joint research and/or commercial projects. Additionally, small businesses often don’t have the manpower or knowledge needed to carry out complex tasks, and local students could step in to assist. In turn, they receive an invaluable learning experience which better prepares them for the workforce. On a larger scale, higher education institutions and chambers of commerce can work together to lobby for legislation promoting small business tax credits, or to jointly approach venture capitalists and angel investors or crowdfunding sources to support entrepreneurs.
Colleges must be proactive in pushing out relevant business news within the context of their core educational purpose. New classes and degree programs that enhance business development should be communicated to chamber members. Colleges should create and maintain a strong presence on business social media sites, such as LinkedIn, with relevant management content; they should post frequently about pertinent workforce issues and how college degrees contribute to stronger job candidates, more longevity in employment, and a more stable employee base. In addition, if the institution has partnered with a national organization to serve as an official testing site for professional licensure, share that information with chamber members. It underscores the connection to the local business community by demonstrating a commitment to building a proficient, capable, and ready workforce.
Chamber involvement allows colleges to keep students and alumni informed of areas where worker needs are greatest, so that they can provide appropriate academic and career advising. Colleges can promote internship experiences for their students by connecting businesses to students eager to learn, and provide a potential conduit for permanent employment—a winning scenario for both parties.
The primary role of a chamber of commerce is to be the voice of business. Many chambers have strong legislative committees that lobby for change to improve the business environment. When the issue of enhancing the workforce comes up in conversation, local higher education institutions, as well as the local community, must participate as advocates for education. Postsecondary educators can help unite the business community with a strategic focus on ensuring students are adequately prepared for current and future employment needs. This not only enhances and stabilizes enrollment for the college, but it’s good economic and human resource policy to bolster the local community and make it a more robust place to live, work, and be educated.