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Scaling for Impact: Building Strong Partnerships with Industry Leaders

Connecting higher ed and industry is critical for students to succeed in the workforce, and it requires forming close relationships and maintaining good communication.

Higher education programming now more than ever must be closely aligned with in the workforce for learners to be competitive in the job market. To make this programming most relevant, it’s critical for higher ed leaders to foster strong relationships with industry experts. In this interview, Bridgette Cram discusses the importance of building partnerships between higher ed and industry, the common challenges people run into and how to build something sustainable with your partners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why was it important for Florida International University to focus on building and scaling partnerships, especially with industry?

Bridgette Cram (BC): It’s all about the impact that these partnerships have, as they provide access to experiential learning, internships and mentorship for our students. Those opportunities truly contribute to students being prepared when they graduate and when they land that first great position.

For FIU, providing this experience ties directly into our goal of being a leader in social mobility for our graduates, which has a lasting impact, not only their lives but also for their families. It also contributes to our community’s economic development, which is important to us, as we are an anchor institution in South Florida. We’re producing strong graduates who have skills that meet the needs of our local businesses and industry. It shows that we’re a part of a bigger ecosystem and that each institution and organization has to play a role in that ecosystem, so it can be healthy and thrive.

Evo: What are some of the challenges in building strong partnerships?

BC: Both parties must make the time to really understand where the connection points are and where they can develop initiatives to truly make an impact. Developing partnerships that include designing curricula and embedding experiential learning opportunities across a program requires a lot of intentionality. Adding another layer, like research and development, can add to the complexity of partnership management.

These partnerships also require resource commitment, both human and financial. The human resources element is really important because the biggest challenge is that everyone wants to have great partnerships, but it takes a lot of consistent effort. Building relationships and trust is intensive on the human resource side, in addition to potentially requiring other resources to implement initiatives.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome these obstacles and create sustainable relationships?

BC: At FIU, we have started looking at a standardized MOU process for our partnerships. It’s a good baseline for understanding goals and determining who’s accountable to achieve those goals. The conversations that lead up to the MOU are very valuable because you’re discussing each organization’s vision and how the partnership will fulfill each mission. The MOU also helps establish what resources we’ll need, which is important to make sure we can truly accomplish the established goals.

Another important element is having a central point of contact who’s included in all communications, as well as several partnership liaisons—faculty and staff that work with these partners most frequently—who can also nurture these relationships. Taking these steps ensures that everyone is on the same page. Communication and consistency are critical, and we must hold ourselves accountable so both parties are confident in the partnership.

Evo: What role do microcredentials and skills mapping play in facilitating that ongoing partnership, especially with industry?

BC: While institutions are adapting to meet industry needs, it’s critical for industry to be ready to engage in this process. Having them involved in the curriculum process, which can tie to microcredentials and skills mapping, is one way to do this. Our partners can provide experts who meet with faculty to share new trends or applications in the field. With this information, we can work to adapt the curriculum quickly. At the end of the day, these partnerships truly inform how we can best meet industry needs.

Microcredentials are an important tool for quickly integrating in-demand skills into the curriculum and expanding access to students who want to earn skills faster through co-curricular experiences. They also are an important tool for helping students build their narrative; it ensures they can translate what they have learned during their time at FIU into the skills and competencies employers are looking for.

Skills mapping requires a longer-term approach involving working with faculty very closely to adapt the curriculum through broader conversations with industry but also by reviewing labor market data. With both approaches, we are focused on making sure students have the resources to build a strong narrative that highlights how their theoretical and practical knowledge makes them competitive for their chosen career.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?

BC: It’s important to bring up the role that career services offices can play on campuses that take an integrated approach to career development. The most successful career services offices will truly become a liaison unit between industry and university departments, leading the way by translating the skills needed and connecting those to the curriculum. While setting up a microcredential program or embarking on skills mapping can be really intensive, building relationships and connecting industry partners to faculty is a great place to start.

Bridgette Cram will be presenting on this topic at the Digital Credentials Summit in March.