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Aligning Community Colleges with Community Needs

The EvoLLLution | Aligning Community Colleges with Community Needs
Though they play an essential role in bridging the skills gap, community and technical colleges must focus as much on developing soft skills as they do on technical competencies.

Community and technical colleges play an essential role in their neighborhoods. Tasked with supporting pathways to stable employment, these institutions are a critical piece of reducing local unemployment and supporting the socioeconomic success of their communities. Unfortunately, for many colleges, it’s challenging to update programming and content to ensure it keeps pace with the needs of local employers and key stakeholders. In this interview, Eric Richardson shares his insights on the barriers to relevance for community and technical colleges and shares his thoughts on bridging that gap.

Eric Richardson will discuss this topic in more detail at the NCCET 50th Annual Conference, running December 10-13 in Orlando. Click here to reserve your spot today!

The EvoLLLution: What are the most common challenges when it comes to aligning programming to local workforce needs?

Eric Richardson (ER): Unfortunately, as businesses have changed, the alignment between degree content and the skills of work-ready individuals hasn’t kept pace.

For example, I was talking with the president of Morgan State University, and we did a little experiment. We went online and searched for open accounting jobs in Baltimore, and found 300-400 jobs that are accessible to individuals with an accounting degree. We searched for open engineering jobs and had similar results. This continued as we searched for direct pathways from a few other majors. Finally, I said, “Google jobs for sales.” And there were more than 18,000 jobs. The fact is that specific majors only prepare individuals for specific roles, but in fields where there are huge numbers of jobs—sales, for examples—there are no courses, no majors and no minors whatsoever. This is true for more than 90% of the 5,000 colleges in the United States.

His conclusion was that every freshman should have Workplace Communication—they can use these skills even while they are working part-time jobs during college.  Every sophomore should have Consultative Selling—every job requires selling products, services or ideas.  Every junior should have Managing People—few college students are expecting to be first-level employees throughout their careers.  And every senior should have Account Management to keep and grow clients for their companies.

The challenge is for the colleges, and some of them are beginning to adapt, is to create curriculum that teaches employable and work-ready skills integrated with the traditional majors.

I’ll share another example. Ave Maria College, a small college in Naples, Florida, started their first class for sales in Fall 2019. To help students understand the impact of broader skills, we created a poster that highlighted the advantage of sales skills for a business major. Since then, we have been asked to create similar posters for a number of faculties at Ave Marie—including nursing, political science, music, and over 20 different departments—highlighting the benefit of having sales competencies within their particular fields. Imagine an accounting graduate who actually can sell accounting and grow customer business versus any other accounting graduates. That individual gets hired.

At some point in time you need to have the skills to talk to customers, clients, lenders, investors or even other coworkers. And those skills aren’t prevalent in the college system today.

Evo: Why do you think colleges have been so slow to develop programming designed to build soft skills, like communication and teamwork?

ER: One of the reasons we’ve hypothesized is most college curricula are built by people with doctorates in their degree of study. Unfortunately, though, you can’t PhD your way to understanding soft skills for business. You can’t PhD your way to understanding management. Some of these things require that you have that actual experience out in the real world.

I have a quote from one of my favorite philosophers, Mike Tyson. Mike once said, “Everybody has a plan until he gets hit.” If you’re going to teach somebody how to box, you probably need to have boxed at some point in your time. So if you think about skills in areas like sales and management, there’s value to having experienced and successful people in those fields being involved in that curriculum creation process. Unfortunately, colleges haven’t always been open to that kind of assistance.

Evo: How can this lack of programmatic relevance impact the success of a community, the capacity for a community to grow?

ER: Community college presidents and their key staff members have shared with me over the three years I’ve been involved with the National Council for Continuing Education and Training (NCCET) that traditional enrollments have been dropping off.

They’re all interested in increasing students’ enrollments and presumably their impact on their communities. The way to do that is to provide education that their communities need.

Traditionally, a lot of our community colleges have provided training for jobs in areas like welding or truck driving or things of that nature and have shied away from providing what you would think of as mainstream white collar jobs such as sales, management or customer service. But again, more than half of all of the jobs for all topics combined are either sales or customer support, requiring soft skills. Slowly, colleges are beginning to recognize that and are starting to reach out and involve people in the community to help implement those kinds of curricula.

Evo: What do employers look for in a training and development partner?

ER: Employers are looking for hireable skills across many of the areas we’ve been talking about. When they’re interviewing candidates, they’re looking for business impact skills, communication skills, collaboration skills, business development skills, customer service and support skills. It’s more than the technical competencies—it’s how an individual can support their business growth.

Those collaboration and communications skills are especially important when it comes to employee retention and satisfaction. Modern research says individuals don’t hate the work they do, but they get frustrated by their co-workers and colleagues. My company worked with a major pharmaceutical company to deliver team-building exercises to employees who were at each other’s throats. As an example, sales was fighting with clinical research. The sales team wanted to get a new drug to market as fast as possible to ensure they didn’t get beaten by a competitor (and thus be unable to compete in the market until the patent expires). The clinical research team didn’t want to release it because they hadn’t finished human testing, and were concerned about whether it might kill somebody. Each group thought the other group was being intolerant. In our workshop, we helped them to look at the company from each other’s perspectives and learned that the barrier holding up clinical trials was they didn’t have enough doctors willing to participate in the trials. And the people who have the relationship with the doctors are the sales team! Better communication and leveraging the skills of each team solved both teams’ problems.

Progressive colleges are beginning to step up to that challenge. Colleges such as Weatherford College in Texas, Ave Maria College in Naples, Florida, Hodges University and Kaiser University in Florida, and Tri-County Technical College in South Carolina are providing those kinds of teambuilding and skill-building courses. The community response has been overwhelming. A range of companies, from small mom-and-pop shops who have no access to internal training, all the way to the largest companies like Microsoft, Apple or Honda who all have their own internal training teams, recognize that engaging with external education providers makes them better.

Employers are looking for these kinds of skills. So, as colleges embrace that opportunity, the impact that they’ll have in their communities can grow exponentially.

Evo: What are the most important steps college leaders need to take to ensure their college is meeting the needs of their community and their local employers?

ER: Historically, colleges have not been measured on job placement of completers, but college systems and government bodies are both beginning to require that focus. That will encourage colleges to look more deeply into their connections with the community and the relevance of their programming.

Also, as colleges begin to listen more, interact more, and discuss the needs of the community with community leaders on their boards and in community workshops, they will, I think, gain a greater appreciation for what it takes to graduate students or to retrain students who will succeed in the workplace. It’s a slow process, but there absolutely are colleges that, one by one, all across the country, are stepping up to this challenge.

I’ve had college presidents tell me that it’s critical to them to make effective changes that allow their graduates to get placements and into the real world and be successful. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve also had a college president say directly to me that he didn’t think it was his role to make sure that people got placed. He thought his purpose was higher education and expanding minds. That may or may not be true, but I don’t believe that most students (whether they’re 18 year olds fresh out of high school or adults) paying college fees and taking loans were thinking that when they picked their college.

Fortunately, though, I am seeing a growing population of college leadership embracing the opportunity to enhance their curricula to develop students, graduates and alumni, with skills that are geared toward career readiness, and more in tune with what it takes to be successful in the workplace.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Eric Richardson will discuss this topic in more detail at the NCCET 50th Annual Conference, running December 10-13 in Orlando. Click here to reserve your spot today!

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