BLOG: Increasing Employer Engagement With Your College

By Diane Bosak, Vice President for Workforce Development, and Meredith Archer Hatch, Senior Associate Director for Workforce and Academic Alignment, Achieving the Dream

Over the past several years, the employer voice in discussions about the economy and higher education has grown increasingly louder as companies struggle to find workers to fill positions. In response to calls for more skilled workers in sectors like advanced manufacturing, IT, and healthcare, we have seen a greater emphasis on employer partnerships with colleges that seek to create certificate and degree programs that fully prepare graduates for available jobs, some supported by federal grants from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training program to the more recent apprenticeship grants.

Despite local efforts to establish stronger connections between employers and institutions of higher education and a boost from the federal government, the gap between the skills potential employees say they have and what employers say they need remains. Fortunately, the March 2018 report by Burning Glass Technologies and the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Different Skills, Different Gaps, suggests three focus areas that can potentially lead to solutions:

  • improved alignment between education and workforce systems in a rapidly changing labor market.
  • expanded employer leadership roles in education and workforce systems.
  • improved employer signaling, particularly around the changing competency and credentialing requirements for the fastest growing and hardest to fill jobs.

Any solution will require higher education institutions to be innovative in how they engage with and bring employers to the table, and the changes colleges will have to make will go far beyond the traditional curriculum advisory committees, although those will still be necessary. Industry sector-based conversations with institutions of higher education have been the gold standard for several years. But these industry-led conversations now will need to cut across sectors given that the skills and competencies required for some jobs will be applicable in various industries. For example, information technology (IT) skills are needed in healthcare and manufacturing as well as traditional IT. 

In a report issued by Achieving the Dream in 2018, Building Sustainable and Strategic Partnerships with Business and Industry, we urged a new approach that “requires community college leaders to re-think the roles that industry plays in shaping college programs, re-design how the college engages with industry, and deepen partnerships between colleges and other workforce and training providers in the region to approach industry as a unified front.” 

What does this new kind of partnership really mean for a college?  Colleges should designate an individual who will serve as the coordinator for employer contacts. This position could be a liaison, someone at the college who is managing the multiple relationships with employers across the college but also attuned to whom from the employer engages with the college. The liaison also would participate with other partners such as the local workforce development board. This is not intended to diminish the existing relationships between individuals at a college and employers but rather to ensure that the partnership is effective and the employer does not become overwhelmed by multiple requests from the college.

The other key aspect of a new partnership between a college and employers is to include faculty in direct conversations with employers in order to maximize employer input in curriculum design, work-based learning opportunities, and career pathways as well as student career planning and resources. If colleges follow this alternative approach in their dealings with employers, as noted in our report Building Sustainable and Strategic Partnerships with Business and Industry, it can lead to a “sustained commitment from employers to shaping college programs; more accurate, real-time information on the needs of the regional labor market; and more students prepared with the skills and experiences they need to succeed in careers that pay family-sustaining wages.”

Employer-educator partnerships have been evolving and will continue to evolve as the demand for workers and specific skills changes with an ever-changing economy. Enhanced, strategic partnerships with employers are a critical component of a comprehensive approach to more closely integrating and aligning students’ academic and career plans.

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