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Framing States’ Education Attainment Goals at the Local Level: Leveraging Industry Sector Partnerships

The EvoLLLution | Framing States’ Education Attainment Goals at the Local Level: Leveraging Industry Sector Partnerships
Industry sector partnerships provide a model to support workforce and economic growth, but their success relies upon structured and conscious collaboration between partners across the community.

What do the state initiatives Drive to 55, Launch Oklahoma, myFutureNC, Future Ready Iowa and Educating for the Future all have in common?

They are states’ flashy names for education and credential attainment goals. Lumina Foundation reports that as of December 2019, 43 states have postsecondary education attainment goals. The myFutureNC goal is for two million North Carolinians to have a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2030. This goal, not unlike the goals of the other 42 states, is broad and set with the entire state in mind. Many of the states set their goals to address the national surge in demand for skilled workers over the past decade and the projected demand into the next decade.

Lofty goals? Yes. Impossible tasks? No.

To establish a postsecondary education goal, the first step is to gain public and private endorsements for the effort. Many of the states with education or credential attainment goals have already gained support and are working diligently toward achieving the goals. However, for a large portion of the stakeholders who are the local “boots on the ground” in developing and implementing strategies to achieve their State’s goal, the ambitious levels of the goals are difficult to grasp on a county or regional level. Localizing the attainment goals is paramount to success and, no matter the geographic reach of the work, it begins with engaging business and industry leaders, local community, education and economic and workforce development partners in a systematic and strategic process.

Education attainment alone can’t help a state move forward and make economic opportunities available to every one of their citizens. Family sustaining jobs and careers depend upon the growth and activity of a state’s businesses and industries. If sectors across a state are not expanding, economic mobility and opportunities will be limited for a great portion of a state’s population.

Additionally, if the skills and competencies provided by local education and training institutions do not meet the needs of their industry partners, economic activity will stagnate due to challenges with finding talent and upskilling the workforce.

Inherent to achieving a state’s education attainment goal and growing the economy is understanding exactly what business and industry needs and how various education and training providers can play their part in meeting these needs. This is no small feat! After all, one of the key drivers of any states’ attainment goal is the challenge encountered in attempting to align worker education programs with the needs of the local economy.

Industry and Business Ownership

Alone, the voices of business and industry are not enough for setting the workforce and education agenda in a state. Setting aside competition and coming together as industry sectors to take ownership of building local talent pipelines is an early step in localizing education attainment and addressing the upskilling of a state’s workforce.

Businesses don’t differentiate between a “workforce” conversation and a “competitiveness” conversation—businesspeople see that the two are interconnected. Getting business professionals to “own” this work ensures that they will be more deeply and effectively engaged in building the talent pipeline they need.

In other words, education/training providers are more likely to get it right if businesspeople are working hard to ensure they get it right! Business ownership is a key pillar of any industry partnership.

Case Study: How Industry Leveraged Collaboration for Competitiveness in Northern Colorado

The Northern Colorado Manufacturing (NoCo) Partnership, formed in 2013, is an example of a successful initiative driven by a business. Roughly 20 manufacturers in Northern Colorado were brought together to address common issues in the industry, such as skills gaps, awareness of manufacturing and the aging workforce.

Since the formation of NoCo, the partnership now includes more than 200 manufacturing companies from across the state. The partnership worked together to organize an annual tradeshow for both manufacturers and their supply-chain partners to showcase their innovative offerings, network and create new business relationships. The tradeshow launched in response to challenges related to problematic or “leaky” supply chains. Just last year, the members of the partnership identified new goals which ranged from growing the manufacturing tradeshow to future workforce awareness and legislative education for members.

NoCo has benefitted not only the local industry but also the support partners who serve the region. Through the efforts of the partnership, members have raised funding for student scholarships at local community colleges and have created supervisor training programs held at the University of Northern Colorado.

Community Support

Public support partners, such as workforce boards or community colleges, may feel threatened that an industry sector partnership is in competition with them, or duplicating their existing efforts.

In reality, sector partnerships are a mechanism to enhance and strengthen many existing networks or initiatives. Coordination of the public support partners is vital to the success of any industry sector partnership. The sector partnership in Northern Colorado succeeded because industry took ownership while the community colleges and workforce boards truly listened and responded to their industry partners.

Case Study: How Community Leaders are Partnering for Change in Washington

In Washington state, the complex interaction of support partners in the Healthcare Industry Leadership Table (HILT) is an exemplary example of a sector partnership. HILT, formed in May 2018, brought together Seattle’s diverse healthcare and medical organizations to discuss their greatest challenges.

HILT launched after support partners—community colleges, workforce development organizations, community-based organizations and others—agreed to take a unified approach in supporting the health care industry. They created a “shared table” where they could all collaborate effectively with health care employers in the region.

HILT identified a range of actions to address workforce shortages, improve employee recruitment and retention, reduce costs of care, and better coordinate across sub-sectors within health care. Though HILT is completely driven by the local health care industry, industry members are supported by a coordinated team of regional education, workforce training, economic development and community organizations. HILT business champions partnered directly with the support partners to tailor workforce development programs to assist essential hiring and fill vacant positions. Additionally, the response from public and private support partners has helped to leverage local resources needed to position the industry to be more successful and sustainable in the long run.

This example demonstrates the advantage of sector partnerships and how they may help states’ education and workforce systems meet the needs of their business and industry.

Four Steps to Build Industry Sector Partnerships

Focusing state education attainment goals at a local level must begin with engaging those who drive the local economies, business and industry. So, how should a region move forward to convene an industry sector partnership?

Here are recommendations based upon the nationally recognized Next Generation Sector Partnerships model:

Step 1: Public Support Partners Coordination and Sector Identification

Public support partners may include leaders from community colleges, local chambers of commerce, economic development and workforce boards. The purpose of gathering these support partners is to develop an understanding of which industry sectors are driving the local economy and come to an agreement on the appropriate industry sector to start with. Since sector partnerships depend on a coordinated team of public partners, it is critical that a diverse team is engaged in the early planning stages to ensure it is a truly collaborative effort and that partners buy into a shared approach.

Another vital action for the support partners is to identify a convener. Establishing a convener is a key part of this process as the person who steps up to play this role is important to the overall leadership and coordination of the support partners. However, the convener does not own the partnership. Businesses own the sector partnership and nothing moves forward without business participation. The convener acts as the point person for the coordinated effort, facilitates the sessions, and finds the meeting venues.

Step 2: Launch Date, Location and Invitations

Once the specific industry sector has been determined, the public partners will identify the individuals within their local businesses to invite to the sector partnership launch. These business contacts ideally are those who see the big picture, are collaborative, and have decision-making authority. Locally respected business champions are identified from the industry contact list and asked to sign the launch date invitation letter, demonstrating local business ownership for the launch.

Step 3: The Launch

The launch is important for creating excitement and identifying industry leadership for the effort. To help facilitate the meeting, it is important to ensure the room is set up so industry partners are seated at front, with support partners seated behind them. This is not to underplay the importance of the support partners but instead to ensure that the industry partners are in the front of the room and engaged during the meeting. The support partners’ primary goal during the session is to listen, not to sell programs or demonstrate expertise to the industry partners.

The agenda is kept simple and quickly transitions into a conversation with industry partners about current trends and positive aspects of their industry. This is a way to get the partners warmed up to actively participate and sets a positive tone for the meeting instead of focusing on negative issues or industry challenges.

The facilitator will ask the industry partners, on provided sticky notes or cards, to brainstorm and identify one or two key things they need to occur for their business to thrive into the future and to write their names on the cards.

The facilitator will then elicit clarification of those ideas, if needed, and will cluster the responses around similar themes. Typically, three or four themes will emerge among a few outliers. The facilitator will validate these themes through agreement of the group and will seek out champions—individuals who are passionate about seeing the theme or item come to fruition. If champions do not rise up, then the facilitator can challenge the group on whether the theme or item is a real priority.

The meeting wraps up when the champions are identified, and committees made up of volunteer champions are formed to address the priorities.

Step 4: Follow Up and Quick Wins

Quick wins can help further excite and sustain the effort to address more long-term priorities. Many times, work-based learning or marketing and awareness can be addressed quickly and successfully, and those quick wins should be celebrated and publicized. This can also have the impact of convincing other industry partners to join the effort.

As the partnership evolves, it is critical that business leaders continue to “own” the agenda even as they enlist support from public partners in implementing projects and initiatives. Passionate public partners play a critical role in supporting businesses’ priorities. That is why it is critical to establish a diverse group of public partners committed to making a difference in their region early. For example, if developing a training program was the priority of the businesses in the sector partnership, the training providers or community colleges will have a critical role to play in getting the program up and running. If, on the other hand, transportation was identified as the priority, then appropriate public support partners such as local government agencies or economic development organizations may need to step up to partner with business leaders in implementing solutions. Sector partnerships across the country are succeeding because industries’ challenges, whatever they may be, are identified by the industry members and support partners are pulled in when needed.

National Help is Available

There are over 80 partnerships operating in 16 states, with 28 different sector partnerships in Colorado alone ranging from health care to advanced manufacturing, according to the Next Generation Sector Partnership team.

A sector partnership community of practice exists to provide a forum where support partners from higher education and the workforce or economic development groups can benchmark best practices and learn from their peers.

These efforts provide many benefits, but ultimately the future economic health of the country is dependent upon the health of the states’ businesses and industries. Without a skilled and educated workforce, businesses and industries fail to grow and the economic health of the country suffers in turn. The next move is up to the states’ education, workforce, and economic development leaders. How will you localize your state’s education or credential attainment goal?