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Collaborations at Community Colleges to Prepare Students for the Workforce

As today’s students continue their educational journey while in the workforce, institutions can begin to leverage their continuing ed divisions and industry leaders to deliver on their lifelong learning mission.   

With the non-traditional student becoming the majority in higher education, many learners will be looking to get into the workforce as soon as possible. They need short and flexible programming that will connect them to the right viable career. To execute this mission, it’s important for institutions to develop strong relationships with leading industry partners. In this interview, Michael Keogh discusses the importance of forming corporate partnerships and relationships, how institutions can stand out to employers as a great partner, and how workforce development divisions can help the broader institution deliver on student and industry needs. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Being the statewide community college for Vermont, does it operate more as a system or a single college with multiple satellites?

Michael Keogh (MK): We are part of the Vermont State College System (VSCS). CCV has twelve academic centers strategically located across the state and the state’s largest online catalog. I started here ten years ago, and at the time, there were five colleges within the system. It’s interesting because I generally didn’t think of higher ed being a dynamic system, but in these past ten years I’ve seen a lot of change, especially in response to external influences such as changing demographics, employer needs, funding, etc.

Today, the system has two universities, a technical college and the community college. 

Recently, under the guidance of the chancellor of the state college system, we decided to consolidate the system. Now there will be one college (the Community College of Vermont) and one university (Vermont University) within the Vermont State College System. We still don’t know exactly what that transition will look like at the local campus level as this is a very recent development. People are starting to put together their two- or three-year plans for that consolidation. So, we work independently, but we also get to leverage the resources of the state college system. Generally, when I go to a company or community partner, I like to say that I’m representing the state college system because we have access to all of these other tools and resources. 

Evo: When it comes to forming corporate partnerships and relationships between the college and employers or community partners, can you easily create modular offerings that leverage pieces from the university and from the community college? 

MK: It’s easy to say, here’s a list of our resources, but then how do we organize it? Certainly it can be a challenge to operationalize these types of ideas. In part, because the structure of the community college is so different from the structure of our sister colleges. We do, however, share a single accreditation with our sister colleges, and we’re currently in the process of finalizing a common general education framework which will help mitigate challenges when collaborating across institutions.

Putting together programs and pulling together disparate resources—whether it’s internal or external—is our wheelhouse in workforce and continuing ed. I like to think of us as the entrepreneurial arm of colleges. I’d also highlight that the community college is full of like-minded, entrepreneurial and forward-thinking professionals who are singularly focused on outcomes and will work through any challenge.

Evo: What characteristics of a college are going to really stand out to an employer as a great learning partner?

MK: Well, it’s never about the college or the institution. When we talk about partnership, it comes down to people. The connection between a college and an organization or company is only as strong as the individuals that manage that relationship. I manage a contact list just here in the state of about 5,000 individuals across around 3,000 different companies. These are people that I want to help, but how reasonable is it to expect that one person or even one department can maintain a deep, meaningful relationship and partnership with all of these folks? In Vermont, and I would imagine in other small communities, business is done on a handshake. So, if I sent out a mass email that says, “Dear community partner…” it’s going to land flat.

One of the strategies we’ve developed and started to implement is managing relationships locally. It’s not just my responsibility as the director of this engagement to manage local relationships but that of our entire staff—to be the local voice, send out that tickler email to see how things are going and provide updates on new initiatives.

Our roles, positions—whatever we title ourselves—don’t really matter. I believe our jobs are a platform to move our personal missions forward. What I love about working at the community college is that every professional I’ve met is passionate and mission-driven, with a very clear sense of their goals and what they want to accomplish in their community.

I remember finishing my undergrad and feeling like this huge challenge had finally been accomplished. I thought the world was my oyster, but what’s next? I went to my alma mater’s career services department and got a resume template and links to and It felt like a simple pat on the back and a “good luck.” And I remember being so frustrated, thinking to myself, I just spent $80,000 on this degree. I’m a first-generation college student. It was my parents’ dream for me and certainly a dream of my own. And I’m like, well, what is this?

So, when I found the opportunity many years later to work at a community college, I felt like it was my chance to finally connect business with education. Now, mind you, the role that I took had nothing to do with that, but it got me in the door, and about three years later, I was courted by the workforce development department because of my connections in the community and passion for this work. And then positions have been created for me as we saw need. 

To be a great learning partner is to (a) be engaged and truly interested in the work and needs of your business partners, (b) be flexible enough to deliver programming in new ways to better meet the changing needs of the community and (c) be consistent. 

Evo: From your role in Workforce Development, how could greater collaboration between the workforce development divisions and the traditional part of the college help deliver on those professional aspirations as students progress through academic programs?

MK: One of the strategic changes we’ve made in Workforce Development to move this needle forward is to leverage existing credit-bearing courses for workforce development programming. For example, we’ve developed several programs with healthcare providers around the state for which we use accredited coursework as the foundational training. We’ve added on some additional certifications in these particular training programs and provided some noncredit instruction, but the spirit of this is that we are preparing our students for future professional and academic success. When someone leaves this particular program, they leave with college credits, industry recognized credentials and a job. Our hope is that we’re finding people with long-term aspirations, so they’re able to use that college credit and apply it toward a certificate or degree program, which hopefully will serve as an incentive to grow and persist. 

Additionally, we’ve been working more closely with other departments throughout the college. In fact, we’ve scheduled ongoing quarterly meetings with them to better understand their needs and share current projects—projects we may have on the horizon—but more importantly opportunities for collaboration and alignment. For example, I think of career services departments, which are often small relative to the very large and diverse populations they serve. Recently, our career services department implemented the college’s first virtual career fair. This presented a great opportunity for Workforce Development to leverage their business contacts and offer this as a service to support Vermont businesses’ recruitment needs. Everyone wins in this situation. 

Evo: When you look at the work organizations like NCCET, how is their impact or influence important to the growth of continuing education and community colleges nationwide?

MK: I’ve attended dozens of national conferences and had the opportunity to meet colleagues from across the country. I’ve noticed some common threads, which always surprised me because it’s so easy to get insulated in our work and feel like these challenges are unique to us. 

One common thread is that we’re all small departments. I feel that workforce and continuing education will be the highest growth center for our colleges, at least for the next five to ten years. 

And certainly, some workforce and community ed departments function independently as profit centers for the college, whereas others work under the general budget. But either way, very few colleges are increasing staff. So, the question is, how do we do more with less? Through organizations like NCCET, we can leverage that collective experience, skills, knowledge, tools and resources to support the work.

Certifying curriculum is certainly a benefit. NCCET provides us with a national voice to promote and support this work. But it also means that NCCET can potentially provide a single-entry point for large national or multinational companies to access collective training resources.

I also really appreciate how NCCET recognizes that, as demand for workforce and continue ed programs increase, there’s increasing demand to train internal college staff. Staff who have been primarily focused on credit-bearing courses and matriculation, may not be privy to some of the challenges, resources and tools we use in workforce education. When I talk to staff about this work, I encourage them to ask a lot of questions and to look for opportunities and needs. Our job is to solve problems, ultimately. So, as soon as they’re able to identify a problem, we can start crafting solutions—which is critical.

Evo: How valuable is the regional approach that NCCET is taking to execute some of those broader visions or goals?

MK: We have to clarify regional. I look at the NCCET structure as taking national, regional and local approaches. By pulling together local colleges and organizations to support the national network, obviously, it’s a huge help. But through this new regional approach, I believe we’ll be able to operationalize ideas on a local level and implement strategies more swiftly. 

Now, to get from point A to point B, there are a million different strategies that we can implement. So, working collaboratively to examine what we’ve done in the past and what’s worked to create a regional strategy is going to be really helpful. Also, regional approaches like this increase opportunities for programmatic cross-border collaboration. And it can potentially make smaller states more competitive in national grant applications. 

A lot of companies sit near our borders, and they would benefit from that single entry point. If a company has 50 locations across five states in New England, they don’t want to have to work with five different states to create five different strategies or apprenticeship programs. It’s overwhelming. The business doesn’t have the time nor the capacity to build five different programs. This structure would allow the region, as a training network, to court and support companies like this, which will benefit stakeholders across the region.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the opportunity that NCCET provides to continuing ed and workforce development divisions of community colleges? 

MK: There’s always talk of the non-traditional student, but it’s a misnomer simply because the term implies an older student. But right now, more than half of our student population has an average age of 26. The non-traditional student is our traditional student, which is amazing. And the Community College of Vermont has been adapting to this demographic shift.

And so, we’re serving an older population who is also currently working. In fact, 83% of CCV students are working. Many of them have children and families at home as well. But there’s still a lot of work to do. 

Here in Vermont, we have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country with a much lower college enrollment rate upon graduation. This means we have higher rates of people entering the workforce without any credential beyond high school. Workforce and continuing education departments are in a unique position to directly serve these populations when they are ready for that advancement. They need something short and quick, that leads to greater employment opportunities or career paths.

Another strategy that has been really helpful in marrying the credit-bearing and non-credit side is creating short career entry points through workforce trainings with credit attached. The idea is that anyone from any community, regardless of background, can come in through that single career training entry point and find employment locally. So, we’re serving a diverse population through the single-entry point developed through workforce education, and we’re pretty proud of that. It’s a model that will continue to grow and support a variety of industries.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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