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Replacing the Third Leg: Corporate Partnerships and Long-Term Community College Success

The EvoLLLution | Replacing the Third Leg: Corporate Partnerships and Long-Term Community College Success
Given the budgetary challenges facing many two-year colleges, along with their responsibility to support the development of the local workforce and local economy, more employer and industry partnerships could provide a route to growing programming and revenue while addressing a major mission goal.

Community colleges across the United States are facing challenging times and market conditions. With ever-greater expectations placed on them from external observers, many colleges have seen their three-leg funding model (balanced between state funding, municipal tax and tuition and fees) change drastically. As state funding has been slashed significantly, many colleges are having to make up the difference through tuition and fees. At some colleges, though, they are doubling down on their workforce-development mission and forging lasting and lucrative partnerships with local employers to support workforce preparedness and pathways for students while also creating an ecosystem that drives lifelong employee education through the college. In this interview, Ian Roark reflects on the importance of strong local and regional employer partnerships for community colleges and shares his thoughts on how to develop and sustain these relationships over the long term.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do strong relationships with local and regional employers benefit community colleges?

Ian Roark (IR): The most important consideration are the resulting benefits to our students because those benefits carry over to both the employers and the college.

What we’ve seen is that students are more likely to enter into gainful employment or to commit to employers with whom they’ve developed a relationship through programs of study, rather than just connecting with a random employer that tries to recruit them after they’ve completed their program.

This involves developing and designing quality work-based learning experiences for students so that they get applied experience as a part of their programs. This offsets a barrier that we often see–where students have all the requisite technical training but then employers require prior experience even for entry level jobs.  How can students have prior experience in manufacturing unless they’ve been given that opportunity through internships, apprenticeships, or some other form of work-based learning?

Finally, students notice when employers invest in the program of study. Investments such as curriculum development, scholarships, donations or capital improvements, and connections with company employees are the types of things that students notice, and these also have an obvious benefit to the college.

Evo: What does it take to develop a partnership with an employer?

IR: Workforce development can get rather transactional for colleges and employers, both of whom have their own set of financial constraints—but if we work toward a deeper, transformational relationship, that’s where a true partnership can develop along the way. That type of relationship requires trust, more planning, meaningful conversation, and willingness for give and take on both sides.

The college practitioners first and foremost have to become great listeners. We cannot continue to make excuses for why we can’t respond fast enough to meet the employers’ needs. Conversely, employers are best served when they understand the real constraints colleges face. That understanding comes out of building relationships, time, investment and results. The college has to gain trust from business and industry and not only by listening but by also ensuring some short-term wins for their industry clients.

Over time, you’ll see which employers are genuinely interested in community development and talent development because they see those strategies as good for the longevity of the business and good for the community, versus those employers who only see it as good for the business at a fixed point in time.

Evo: How can college leaders work to maintain that relationship and transform it into a lasting, long-term partnership?

IR: Treat nothing like a single engagement. You have to be continuingly engaged; you have to be involved.  By engagement, I mean our behaviours and practices of interaction with employers including us going out to them, us listening to them, our demeanour, our follow-through on commitments that we make, our honesty in what we can and cannot do, and our authentic willingness to change our programs and processes to meet their needs.  It can’t just be the employers being involved in an advisory committee twice a year at the college. It really has to be about how often the college’s staff or faculty engage with the employers on the employers’ terms.

Evo: From the college’s perspective, what kind of partnership is more lucrative for the institution—one that gets more skilled workers into growing industries, or one that provides ongoing educational and professional development opportunities to existing employees?

IR: I think it’s both, because workforce development partnerships need to be comprehensive. And because it has to be comprehensive it really comes back to how the college structures and supports it’s workforce development units. If the college is committed to a comprehensive approach to workforce development, then meeting the emerging needs, the skilling up of existing employees, and the creation of sustainable programs of study to maintain the talent pipeline are all crucial. Therefore the engagement with business and industry needs to occur at all of those different levels.

Evo: What role do you think employers will play in the future of two-year colleges, especially in Arizona?

IR: The role that employers play will be crucial going forward, especially considering the funding trajectory of colleges. It has to be business and industry that drives the requests for restored or increased funding with respect to workforce development.  Business and industry leaders are often engaged at the state level and are often communicating to the policy makers and to the state bureaucracy that a strong talent development mechanism at the community college level is important to them. It’s important for their business growth and by extension the growth of the economy of the state, and that’s where the message is well received on the funding side. Business and industry are more effective flag bearers than education is in this case, especially if they are satisfied customers of the programs and services that the colleges provide.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the critical role that professional and workforce development partnerships play for two-year colleges today?

IR: We have to own this issue. Once the college decides that the priority customer and partner is business and industry, then the dynamics of the conversation shift because the people who benefit the most from that mindset and practice are the students. It gives our students access to the higher-paying jobs, which in turn starts to address the poverty dynamics in our communities. I believe that a student-centered approach actually is dependent on an employer-centered approach.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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