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Delivering on Demand: Working with Employers to Fill Skill Gaps

The EvoLLLution | Delivering on Demand: Working with Employers to Fill Skill Gaps
Institutions need to develop a more efficient and integrated education model with employers to retain students in less populated areas

As institutions are looking to fill gaps in students’ knowledge, they first need to figure out what they’re missing. Working closely with industry partners allows for a deeper understanding of the skills needed in the workforce and how to deliver them. Sandy MacDonald discusses employer partnerships, their critical roles in higher education and how institutions can stand out to employers. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for colleges to maintain strong partnerships with employers?

Sandy MacDonald (SM): At Holland College, our number one priority has two parts to it: one is to ensure that that our students are able to find meaningful work and graduate. The second part is to ensure that we are able to help employers address the challenges in our own labor market. We need strong relationships with partners and employers to ensure that both our students’ needs and the work mandate are met. These points will likely be even more important in the future given the demographic challenges we face in Atlantic Canada and the changes occurring in the labor market. We’re experiencing both labor shortages and skill shortages, so we need a broader and deeper working relationship with employers to overcome those issues, more than ever before.

It’s probably one of the most important components of the economic development approach. If you’re looking at an employer’s most important asset, it’s the employees that pick the firm. And higher education is most responsible for training and upscaling those employees. So, we have a significant and direct impact on the economy. That responsibility becomes more important as you face this more challenging labor market.

Evo: How do you define employer partnerships?

SM: The simplest form of a partnership would be one wherein we rely on industry to provide internships or co-ops—work with integrated learning for our students. On the more complex side, partnerships would be our form of contract training approach. After meeting with the industry rep and looking at what their short-term needs are, we would then address those over a period of weeks or months. So, it runs a gamut from an integrated learning component, through a customized training component, all the way into a broad and deep relationship in which there’s co-training and co-assessment taking place.

Evo: What are the characteristics that really help a college stand out as an ideal partner for an employer?

SM: The first would be an openness to do things differently. It’s very difficult for us to approach an employer or the government for funding and say, “This is what we’d like you to do” without first admitting to ourselves that we need to do some things different. There’s a certain amount of transparency required.

There’s also a significant amount of flexibility needed to figure out how we’re going to change our behaviors to better meet industry needs.

The third, and perhaps most important, part is the whole trust factor. Do what you said you were going to do and be very clear with industry on what it is you can’t do. You need  to engender trust in these industry relationships.

Evo: How can college leaders work with their employers to maintain the partnerships over the long-term?

SM: Almost all colleges in Canada have program advisory committees,which is a very good place to start. The group meets once or twice a year and sits down with instructors and managers to look at a specific program and determine if it is still meeting industry needs. But it’s just the starting point. In that process, you need to ensure that you’re doing everything you can to have a clear, open and honest exchange of views of where industry is going and what the colleges need to do to help them get there.

But then at the senior administrative table, there has to be a sense of urgency to avoid continuing to do things as we’ve traditionally done them. The world, especially the labor market, has changed so dramatically. When we work with industry, providing them with what we’re prepared to do, we have to ask, “Are you prepared to meet us part way?”

That should be consistent all the way down–from the top management into the program advisory committee. The institution is prepared to meet your needs, and we’re prepared to work with you long-term.

Evo: What are a few brass tax benefits that a college gains from building and maintaining these benefits?

SM: We’re in the business of selling postsecondary education. So, what we want to make sure of is that the young people who come to us are going to have the skills and autonomy necessary to working where they want, when they want and for whom they want. I think a lot of learners want that, too.

For example, we’re developing a program now with the bio resource industry in Atlantic Canada. So, it’s a collaboration between ourselves, the bio science sector in PEI, UPEI, Acadia University, University of Moncton, a community college in New Brunswick, and a hundred employers across the three Atlantic regions in Quebec. We’re telling students that if they come to us, we’ll provide them not only with all the skill training they need but also with an integrated industry experience that over a hundred companies have agreed to provide. So instead of doing an internship at the end of your first, second or third year, you’ll have your internship on a weekly basis.

Getting direct feedback from industry on how you’re performing is another benefit. For certain skill sets–like leadership communication and critical thinking—we have a much more effective way to teach and assess those, than we would by just doing it ourselves. It’s the quality of the program that we’ll be selling to our students, and we’re enabled to do that because of our relationship with industry.

Evo: How do these kinds of robust partnerships between colleges and employers not only help to create a healthy labor market in an area, but also help ensure that more organizations stay in Atlantic Canada.

SM: Years ago, like most people in my generation, I went out to Alberta for work and to make money. So, I worked in Fort McMurray fixing sewer lines for a while. The people of Fort McMurray welcome people from Atlantic Canada because of our good work habits, so, when I told them I was looking for a job, they were excited about that. Why can’t we develop the same cachet or brand in Atlantic Canada for our academic habits?

The second issue is that when you’re collaborating with other institutions, and your students are going to get a good grounded education, they’re going to be exposed to industry.

They’ll have meaningful work right after they graduate. In terms of paid internships, they’ll be paid while they learn. The draw from the rest of Canada is minimized greatly. We know that we’ve got demographic problems here in Atlantic Canada, and we have brain drain because people are perceiving the grass as greener somewhere else. We can create our own green lawns here in Atlantic Canada that’ll keep those students here and more importantly, attract students from the rest of the world. If we create a better, more efficient, more integrated education model at the postsecondary level, we won’t have to worry about a brain drain.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of employer partnerships for a college, and the capacity to help the college grow as a result?

SM: All of this is a two-way street. We need industry to help us determine how to do our job as effectively as possible. In return, industry need us to provide them with their most important variable for success: labor. The more we can integrate, the broader and deeper we can integrate those interventions, and the more we can focus on graduating students that will go on to do a good job. The more we’re able to ensure our students have those hard-to-teach skills, the stronger our end of the country will perform economically, and the easier it will be for us to recruit students for our programs.

We have a project now, where the seven colleges in Atlantic Canada—across four provinces and in both English and French—are working together. We’ve made a submission to the future skills center at Ryerson University, looking to create an Atlantic hub of innovative training approaches at the college level. Each college is focusing on a pilot project in its area. We’re doing healthcare, Newfoundland is doing mining, IT in New Brunswick, oceans in Nova Scotia. And when we do these seven projects, we’re going to find the commonalities among them and be able to share those to help inform the rest of our program offerings. It’s the first time in our history that we’ve ever had this level of integration among the colleges themselves. To this point, we’ve always been competitors.

The new reality is that we’ll need to collaborate a lot more. So, it’s not just between industry and the colleges; it’s also between the colleges and universities.

It’s a new day, that’s for sure.

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