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Aligning College and Careers: Working With Industry to Shrink the Skills Gap

The EvoLLLution | Aligning College and Careers: Working With Industry to Shrink the Skills Gap
A community college’s key mandate is to provide education that prepares students for full-time employment. By aligning with local industry, community colleges can respond to real-time job market needs and ensure sustainable employment for its students.

Consisting of 25 community and technical colleges, the Alabama Community College System is responsible for adult education and workforce development across the state. In this interview, Jeff Lynn discusses the importance of aligning college programming with local industry needs, and developing industry-specific curricula that prepare students for current and future job markets.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for community colleges to create access to non-degree credentials for students?

Jeff Lynn (JL): The role of community colleges is to provide programming that meets the needs of our local job market. To do this, we need to listen to local employers and provide programming that results in a well trained workforce, whether that’s through offering credit programs, short-term workforce programs, or short term, stackable credentials.

Right now, companies in Alabama are requesting we provide short-term, adaptable programming. Concurrently, we need to make sure that that the skills students learn in the community college system can be applied, in future, towards a credit degree or diploma.

Evo: How has the Alabama Community College System, shifted to create this kind of access to non-degree, stackable credential offerings across the state?

JL: We work with companies across the state in all different industry sectors, predominantly manufacturing, healthcare and IT, and provide educational solutions that meet their workforce needs. At the same time, though, we’re very focused on what the outcomes of those solutions will be for teachers and students.

If there’s a technical curriculum that that company needs us to create, we make sure to balance that company-specific curriculum with the broader competencies that are laid out in that particular job or skill set.

So, we’re focused on making sure that we create that pipeline of skilled workers across the state, whether by providing a program into a dual enrollment high school program, where students get college credit in high school and go straight to work after twelfth grade, or part-time programs where they can continue to work while they go to our colleges, or full-time college programs, where they come to us first and then go to work.

Evo: What role does technology play in the college’s ability to simplify the delivery of stackable, long-term programs to students?

JL: Technology really plays an interesting role in the community college systems.

From a purely academic standpoint, being able to deliver a program on a 24/7 platform is ideal for teaching students theories and concepts—provided, of course, that the theoretical knowledge they’re gaining online is balanced by real-time training.

From a competency or skills training standpoint, there are some amazing, cost-friendly tools out there that schools can use to deliver training. With augmented reality programs, students can look inside the human body to learn how the heart functions, or take apart a jet engine to understand exactly how the rotary blades work. So, technology not only influences how we deliver basic curriculum, but also how we teach very technical skills.

Evo: What can other college leaders learn about creating relationships with employers that allow them to build responsive, work-focused, stackable programs?

JL: The reason we exist is to prepare our students to go to work, so we need to listen to our customers and focus on their needs. Companies are not experts in training or task analysis, so our job is to embed ourselves in these companies and become their curriculum experts, and develop the curriculum they need.

At the same time, we need to make sure that the training we provide matches the job market. We do that by making sure our instructors’ credentials are current. Even if they’re purely academic, we have them work in their field so that they can embed responsive, forward-thinking practices and technologies into our curriculums.

The biggest thing that college leaders can do is share relationships with local employers. Get into companies, understand what their needs are, and listen to them very closely when developing a curriculum. Have them come into our labs and our classrooms to make sure that we’re meeting the mark. If we don’t turn out students that are workforce-ready, we’re doing everyone—employers, students and ourselves—a disservice.

Evo: Let’s talk about college rankings. A lot of community colleges aren’t properly compensated because a lot of ranking systems look at degree completion alone. How should the completion of these stackable certificates or certification programs play into rankings and success of community colleges?

JL: Unfortunately, it’s fairly common for a student to get halfway through one of our courses, then get recruited by a company for the skills they’ve learned before completing the degree. I’m a big believer in making these programs short and stackable, with clear exit points so that, even if they don’t finish a full degree, they’re leaving with some form of credential that recognizes the skills they’ve acquired.

By the year 2025, 62 percent of our employee base will need a postsecondary short-term credential, and/or degree or diploma. Funding for community colleges is outcome-based, meaning that our funding depends on students completing our programs. When students exit early, we don’t get any credit for them. We need to better communicate this to companies, so that they know completion of these programs is critical not only for the success of the student, but for our success at the community college level.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how the Alabama Community College System is creating more accessible, more labor-market focused programs for your learners?

JL: We have a series of strong workforce councils across the state, made up of manufacturing companies and other employers, who help us determine what industry needs in terms of college and high school programming.

We are fortunate to have a lot of great companies across the state, but our regional economies are very different, and we need to make sure that we’re feeding local markets with the right mix of program offerings. We do a lot of occupational forecasting to match what we’re offering at the local college with local job opportunities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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