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Tandem Time: How Community Colleges and Workforce Development Programs Go Hand-in-Hand

Integrating Workforce Development programming can be vital to student success and give them more opportunities after graduation while meeting industry needs.
Integrating Workforce Development programming can be vital to student success and give them more opportunities after graduation while meeting industry needs.

Various types of partnerships and collaborations between the institution and local employers benefit students in unparalleled ways. The wealth of information available to community college students who have access to industry leaders and their expertise is invaluable for the future of the workforce.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it valuable for colleges to build effective partnerships with employers and industry?

Jessica Cinelli (JC): We are Workforce Development, and we are here to help our students and the community. We’re here to help the employers that we work with—this is what we do. So, for students specifically, it’s about building skills and competencies that match employer needs. Because we have the freedom to develop unique programs, we can base them off industry needs. But without employer industry information, we’re not serving our students the way they should be. So, we do a lot of labor market research.

Alissa Levine (AL): Speaking to employers validates our program offerings. It validates the skills or sometimes introduces us to new skills, 21st-century skills that don’t come up in the labor market reports or that aren’t listed in the job postings but are actually really important to employers. We’re able to directly prepare students for jobs and careers and basically gives them a more realistic expectation of what the job holds than just going off a report. Ultimately, it helps us identify internships, job opportunities and work-based learning opportunities like panel discussions, guest speakers and site visits. We had a lot of success engaging a company like Google with our CUNY Techworks UX Design program. They invited our students to participate in hackathons, which wouldn’t have happened had we not developed that relationship with Google.  

JC: And we’re finding out what our local employers need. We can do the research, but a bakery or tech company in New York is very different from what you would find in Idaho. Their needs are just inherently different.

Evo: There are several different kinds of partnerships an institution can pursue with an employer. There’s workforce training at the preparatory level, upskilling and reskilling, tailored programming with industry associations to create a labor market for employers in an area. What kinds of partnerships are you pursuing?

JC: All of the above.

Each program, each project we’re working on has different needs. You mentioned upskilling—we’re working with partners to build training programs. The employers have a specific group of employees in mind and what those employees will need to be promoted or move to the next level in their careers. That’s one portion of it. Then the basic workforce training programs can be different based on the funding stream and how we develop our program from there.

AL: I think we try to meet partners where they’re at. If someone’s willing to engage with us, we don’t want to ask too much. We don’t want to go in headstrong and say, “Hey, tell me what jobs you have and how many students of mine you’re going to hire.” We really try to see if they want to partner with Kingsborough and what that looks like for them. Because we respect, like Jessie said, the small bakery that doesn’t have the capacity to show up every week for a meeting and offer three internships and two jobs per semester. We try to respect what they want to do with us. We are the only community college in Brooklyn. We have a lot of partnerships and a lot of interest in community-based partnerships, employer partnerships and industry partnerships here in Southern Brooklyn, specifically Coney Island and Brighton Beach. But we try to respect where employers and the companies are and what they want to do with us, and that informs what we can ask of them and what our partnership can look like.

Evo: Do you find that when an employer comes to you for upskilling, then there’s an opportunity to transform that relationship into a broader partnership?

AL: We have a partnership with a large hospital in central Brooklyn that has all sorts of labs and clinics, and we’ve worked with them in every capacity. The Division of Workforce Development has been around for 15 years. We used to refer community health students to internships and volunteer opportunities. We’ve invited representatives from the hospital to serve on boards to inform new programs. We’ve done so much with them on so many levels. It hasn’t necessarily always turned into internships or jobs for students, but ultimately they saw our value. They saw the quality of the students we were preparing and referring to them for internships, volunteer opportunities or jobs. And it worked into a partnership for an upskilling program. We had partners serving adults with disabilities with staff who need more upskilling. So, we developed direct service professionals training. We’re playing the long game. We’re not starting out by looking for employers who are going to hire students right out of the gate. It would be great if somebody did, but it’s a long partnership, with a lot of back and forth, respecting each other’s boundaries, what we can do, what we can ask of each other on both sides.

JC: And it’s not just internships and employment placement. We’ve worked with some employer partners to develop totally new programs. We did workforce health coach training in collaboration with a large hospital in Brooklyn. They saw a need, and we know Kingsborough’s capacity. So, we worked together to develop health coach training. It’s been at Kingsborough for a number of years now, and it matches our capacity and what employer partners, like the hospital in Brooklyn, needs.

Evo: What are some of the common obstacles you and your team face when it comes to developing and maintaining these high-quality partnerships?

AL: To start off, the structure of Workforce Development here at Kingsborough is grant-funded for the most part.

We look out for funding opportunities. We write a program that matches what the funding opportunity is looking for in combination with labor market information. But the nature of grants is that our program staff is hired for three or four years at a time, and often our job developers or employment specialists develop sector-specific relationships. And then if we don’t get refunded that relationship may fall by the wayside, unless there’s somebody on the permanent side—we call them a tax levy—who can sustain that relationship. So, I think our staff turnover, just based on the nature of grant-funded programs, sometimes makes it hard. For example, if we’re targeting culinary, we develop great culinary relationships, but then the funding for it ends, and we move on to health, depending on what the funding opportunity calls for.

Once funding ends, there’s nobody to sustain that culinary relationship. And on a more practical level, our training sometimes takes four to six months. So, between establishing a relationship and hoping that the employer can hang on and offer us opportunities at the end, it doesn’t always translate into a job opportunity. An employer could partner with us now, but six months from now not necessarily have that same job opportunity or hiring need—or business has picked up and they don’t have the time to train and supervise an intern.

In the last three years, we’ve partnered with the college’s Career Development Center, which is a permanent structure at the college. They have long-term staff with whom we partner, so they can sustain the relationship for both workforce students or degree students.

JC: From my perspective as the grant writer for the department, securing funding is hard. In a sense, our programs are dictated by the funder, as they set where the funding goes. We might need somebody to run the program, but they might want to only fund the actual training. So, it’s a little hard in the sense that these funders dictate, to an extent, what they need and what they want to see from us.

Evo: Is it both for upskilling and for entry-level Workforce Development that the programming is grant-funded, like employers don’t pay out of pocket when they partner with you?

JC: Some do. Most of our workforce training programs are fully grant-funded. Funders say what they’re willing to fund, but we also have employer partners with upskilling needs. For the latter, companies fund the upskilling.

Evo: From an operational perspective, it sounds like it would be challenging to manage and maintain the cadence of identifying and accessing grant funding, of identifying and working with partners on appropriate grants. How do you do it?

AL: We have a very good core team. We have some long-term program directors who have allowed us to move from grant to grant—just because their ability to run a program is exceptional. And they can adapt from a culinary, to a tech, to a health program. So, core skills like communication, maintaining relationships and identifying and supporting staff for each program are critical. I think the only people who really swap out between programs are instructors because of content expertise, depending on what sector the training is focused on. But for the most part, we really do try to sustain staff. And we did sustain our grant-funded program staff for a while. We just moved them from one grant to another. They had to learn about different sectors, having gone from community health to technology, but they adapted. And Kingsborough just has a really great work environment where we respect each other and learn from each other.  

Evo: Structurally, semester-based programming is not designed for market-responsive, grant-funded programming. How do you do what you do when the institution isn’t set up to support it?

JC: I think we’re just really agile because we have to be. While workforce is a department at Kingsborough, we are primarily grant-funded and are able to operate independently to an extent. We have to stay on our toes, finding and submitting proposals to different funding streams. We’ve been doing this for 15 years, so we have the experience to get things done. The core team—Alisa and myself, our division’s dean and our vice president—has the core skills and knows what works for us. But it’s more about just staying agile and adapting to whatever employers need, what the college needs and what funders need.

AL: Our college has invested in our department. President Claudia Schrader really values the workforce. She came in with a platform focused on the workforce with a workforce vision. She made it happen. She invested in the resources we need by increasing the capacity of the college and by aligning us with the Career Development Center, where before it was on the degree side. Now it’s both for degree and Workforce Development and Continuing Ed students. So, I know our president recognizes the value of the workforce and is investing wherever she can, given the current economic climate with lower enrollment and obviously financial issues from COVID-19. We’re very fortunate to have a very invested college president and division vice president.

Evo: How important is the work you and your team are doing in terms of leveraging grant funding to provide low-cost or free, in some cases, access to critical workforce training?    

JC: Immensely important. I don’t know another word to explain that—we are here to serve the students. Our ultimate goal is to make sure that they get the education or training they need to enter the workforce to make money for themselves, for their families, to give back to the community and to help the employers we are working with. We’re lucky we all like what we’re doing and we’re passionate about it.

AL: Workforce and the community college model go hand in hand. It should have always been part of it. We’re grateful to have that space here at Kingsborough. Community Colleges increase access to education more broadly than maybe a four-year institution, and Workforce Development takes it even further by making these grant-funded opportunities available to people who didn’t even think community college was an option for them. So, once they join our programs, nobody knows if they’re a community college student, a workforce student or a GED student. They’re just a Kingsborough student, and they have access to the supports and resources, so it’s a natural next step to either enroll at the college or get started on a career path.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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