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Delivering on Lifelong Learning Ecosystem Through Collaborations

In sharing the same value proposition, it’s critical for higher ed institutions to work with industry partners to create skilled workers who are prepared for the workforce. 

Businesses are in short supply of skilled workers, and learners are looking to get into the workforce and remain relevant through their careers. Institutions have the opportunity to become the bridge between learners and workforce and address the skills gaps in the industry while preparing learners for successful careers. Strong relationships are required for a seamless ecosystem to emerge for the lifelong learner. In this interview, Rick Hodge discusses the importance of building industry relationships, developing a lifelong learning ecosystem and overcoming the common obstacles to corporate engagement. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed institutions to have close relationships with industry and employers?

Rick Hodge (RH): Well, industry relationships have become critical collaborations for educational institutions because of our shared value proposition. Industry needs skilled workers, prepared for the future that is already here and driven by a digital economy with rapid changing technologies to remain competitive. And the students we’re preparing, especially Gen Z and millennials, are totally consumed with digital tools and platforms that they’re very comfortable with in our current environment.

Businesses in need of skilled employees desire that they come with a set of competencies in what we have called soft skills, which are now considered essential skills, and hard skills, which are now future skills. So, it’s an opportune time for community colleges especially to fill this talent shortage, given the fact that many companies are no longer requiring degrees to get hired. Our career and technical education programs are designed for accelerated completion of stackable certificates, certifications and licenses. And the speed of change has brought industry to our doorsteps, whereas in the past, we were knocking on their doors hoping to build a relationship.

Community colleges, especially in California, have been fortunate to obtain funding from legislature through the Strong Workforce Program. And it drives new certificate development and training programs that are aligned with high-growth, high-demand industry sectors throughout California. The net result fulfills industry and education expectations of new student talent that helps build our local economies and provides career opportunities in middle-skill jobs that will lead to sustainable, good wages.

Evo: What does it take from the college to reorient itself to start delivering on this lifelong learning ecosystem?

RH: Different people are coming to the table in a way that they haven’t before, meaning the education process starts in the classroom. So we must encourage faculty to incorporate industry and business into their teaching. And the way they can do that is just reach out to certain industries that pertain to their discipline and say, “Hey, we’d love to have you as a guest speaker,” “Let’s set up an information session,” or “Let’s go further and drive solutions for your businesses as projects in our classrooms.” This industry-faculty engagement is critically important because it’s the faculty who have to write the new curriculum that’ll then apply to the kind of skills that industry is looking for.

So, that’s one piece of it. Another piece has to do with how administrators reach out to industry and business with real solutions by saying, “You have the market, you’ve got the ability to employ, but how willing are you to employ and what do you need from us?” As we team up with industry, they can help us prepare the curriculum that will lead to job opportunities. Industry professionals can be guest speakers to convey needed skill preparation. Once students engage with industry, there’s a greater opportunity for a job at the end of it.  And our faculty will be pretty happy about the fact that they didn’t just teach students what to do, but they provided an avenue for employment.

Evo: What are some of the challenges that colleges face when it comes to building scalable and sustainable partnerships with local industry and employers?

RH: I’d say one of the biggest challenges is getting our new certificates approved at the state level. Business and industries need prepared students, and they need them now. They can’t afford to wait for us to ramp up these new training technologies. What holds us up is our four-step process. It starts with a local curriculum committee, then it goes to the region for a recommendation, then it goes to our board for approval and then it goes to the state. As the state gets that information from 116 community colleges, they get backed up with all these approvals, and it can take a good six, eight months, sometimes a year before that new curriculum is approved and ready to move forward. 

Another challenge is that we know that over half of employers indicate that students are not prepared with the needed skills to be employed. Well, this is partly due to our inability to speed up career readiness. On the industry side, job search for students is so competitive, with the plethora of job sites to choose from, and it creates difficulties in navigating through all of these platforms to land a job and be successful in it.

Evo: What role should the college be playing in delivering those career pathways or guidance opportunities for students looking for that next step?

RH: Traditionally, the role we’ve been playing has been largely career assessments. We get students to our career centers and indicate, “We know you have a major. We know the type of career you’re interested in. Now, let’s help you really assess your career opportunities.” In the past, that was useful, but we must get beyond that now because it’s really about the set of skills and competencies that you know you’re going to need for a given dream career. And then we have to really assess what the companies say they need. Once we understand the different job families within a given industry, it will help us help the students. We can say, “Here’s a set of skills we know you will need, so we’ve got workshops, we’ve got workbooks, we’ve got trainings we can put you through that will really get you focused on the right set of skills.”

We’re starting to make those transitions, and we’re also bringing in professionals who already have business relationships, which helps a lot as well.

Evo: In this new era, how can CE divisions continue to play that role in helping their colleges overcome those obstacles to corporate engagement?

RH: The way we’ve been addressing it in our region, and part of what really helps us, is that we have a lot of competition, leading to many educational options for students. In California, between LA and Orange County, we have 28 community colleges. That means we’re all competing for students and enrollments, but we’re also connected with many industry partners for job opportunities.

Our Strong Workforce Program provides funding, but it requires that we work regionally. I’ve chaired a couple of projects, one in global trade and the other in entrepreneurship, with twelve colleges involved in each. We worked together collaboratively to attract business and industry to connect our students to those opportunities and to do all the things necessary to get them career-ready. So, that’s part of this process. 

The other part of career readiness connects with our career centers because most every college has a career center. In the past, we haven’t really done the kind of job placement support we’ve needed to. And frankly, we don’t have that expertise. Our expertise is education and being able to get students through a program, either a degree or a certificate. Now, we’re reaching out to groups and companies that already have that skill and those connections, and then it’s automatic from there. We are creating a new process that goes from career exploration to career preparation to career readiness. Those three steps can solidify employment opportunities. 

Evo: What forms do corporate partnerships take for community college?

RH: There are quite a few different forms of corporate partnerships. I’ll give you some examples. One of the great programs we’ve got on my campus at LA Southwest College is the Higher LAX Program. That program is well put together because it’s not just LAX. It’s Parsons, one of the largest employers in the state. It’s also Flintridge Foundation, who does the case management. This program includes an orientation that leads to training and provides immediate case management for job placement. The partnership connects the labor unions who actually do the hiring that then moves a student into a company doing construction. We’ve got a ton of construction building projects in LA that need ready talent.

So, we end up having 250 to 300 people who come to orientations to get into a cohort of 40 students, and that cohort runs for ten weeks. So, they have the opportunity to qualify for training every ten weeks. We’re able to fast-track students who already have some skills and move them right into employment, or we train them and get them ready for employment, then we help with job placement.

Those components really make that work because it’s a full-service process. And they’re willing to hire students who have had past incarceration, who may have something on their record or who have had work issues in the past. This willingness to hire those students, really helps them engage and see job opportunity as a reality and not just a promise.

Evo: What are some common characteristics in the way an employer engages with the college, and vice versa, that make a lasting partnership?

RH: The way I’ve been able to do that is through networking and connecting with industry. But what I network around is the most pressing topic today: future skills. The best example I can give is with Microsoft, who we’ve had great partnership with over the last three years. It started at an LA Chamber panel that we were on together, talking about future skills. At the end of that panel, I challenged Microsoft: “Guys, you’ve got artificial intelligence. Not a single college in Southern California has a certification in that skill. That’s where you could really help us.” And then I threw out a little carrot:  “And by the way, we’re already doing cloud computing with Amazon.” Well, that really got their attention and they came back and said, “What do you need us to do? We’re in.”

From there, we completed three phenomenal activities. The first was a bootcamp for faculty to train them and help them understand the world of artificial intelligence and all its implications across different industries. The second activity was an AI Summit to teach everybody about AI emergence. That was just before the pandemic, and we had about 300 to 400 people registered, but when the pandemic occurred, we had to go virtual and ended up with 1,300 people at that summit—800 students, 300 faculty and the remaining were staff. The third activity, which is what we’re doing right now, is introducing the very first certificate program in artificial intelligence in our region.

So, that’s an example of a partnership that developed from networking. It started with merely giving them a challenge and being prepared to take it on.

A second item is the willingness and a commitment for businesses to hire at entry levels. It’s one thing when a business says, “Hey, we have the jobs, and we need students to have certain skills.” When we offer a pool of students that they can recruit, are they willing to hire them or are they going to screen them out by a process that eliminates many?

Evo: What impact will these strong relationships with employers have on the college’s ability to deliver on that critical societal mission?

RH: Strong relationships have a tremendous impact. It changes the trajectory of our students, especially under-resourced, low-income individuals. In many cases, that’s Black and Latin X students. When students get access to an opportunity they’ve never had before, they are so jazzed and motivated to make wages to support their families and build a professional career.

And the other thing it does is drive DEI—diversity, equity and inclusion. That is a good business sense and principle, and it helps today’s generations see value in that company, appreciate them and respond to them because it shows that they care. In the end, it grows healthy communities, so the impact is lifelong. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the infrastructure needs that a college has to actually execute on this relationship development and support?

RH: We’ve got the funding, the mechanisms, and we certainly have business and industry coming to us. Again, it goes back to the speed with which we can get ready. That’s always the big challenge—because business has to move fast and we’re not quite there yet.

So, if we can figure out how to speed up our processes, that really works. And clearly, the top companies—Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon—are hiring without a degree, so that speeds up the process. A couple of stackable certificates, certifications and/or licenses really help students be career-ready. It is paramount that we speed up curricular approvals that really help us get students into great careers.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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