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Neosho County Community College's Ottawa campus

Neosho County Community College

In recent years a wide range of companies have sprung up to help fix the so-called skills gap -- the gulf between what employers need and what college graduates can do.

These upstarts include coding academies and job-training boot camps, where job seekers, many of whom already hold degrees, spend 10 weeks or so and a few thousand dollars learning the skills necessary to get a gig with a technology start-up.

Likewise, massive open course providers have moved in this direction, getting less massive and less open by offering microcredentials aimed at specific workforce needs.

Traditional colleges are in the space, too, particularly a growing number of two-year colleges that are partnering directly with employers to create course content aimed at the skills those companies say they need. The in-demand skills training can be designed for students who are working toward a degree, or for adult students who are returning to college to try to break into a new field.

For example, a new consortium of four community colleges will work on course content with big companies in advanced manufacturing and financial services. The group, announced today, includes Neosho County Community College, a largely rural institution located in Kansas, Everett Community College in Washington State, the City University of New York's LaGuardia Community College and the Alamo Colleges, a five-college system located in San Antonio.

On the corporate side, the new College Employer Collaborative includes AGCO, Boeing, MetLife Premier Client Group, the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, Waddell & Reed and Securian Financial Group, among others.

Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization that receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has helped lead the project, with an assist from CorpU, a corporate training company with a social learning platform. The Gates Foundation is contributing money, and the Clinton Global Initiative is also in the mix.

As a first step, the employers will work with CorpU on content for two online courses, said Mary V. L. Wright, a senior director at Jobs for the Future. AGCO and Boeing are taking the lead on an introductory course on advanced manufacturing. The insurance companies are working on a course that introduces students to the financial services industry.

Some of the skills those courses will cover, Wright said, include financial acumen, the concept of sales (both internal to companies and external), how to read blueprints, and basic workplace readiness.

The participating colleges will then figure out how to incorporate the resulting content into their curricula, she said. Colleges will get the online content for free. The plan is for it to be used in both online and blended formats that include in-class learning. More colleges and courses will be added to the coalition over time.

Whether or not the courses will be credit bearing or lead to some form of nontraditional credential -- like a certificate, microcredential or digital badge -- remain open questions. However, Wright said students who complete the courses will have something to show to employers.

“Our ultimate goal is to ensure that students get the skills,” said Wright. But she added that “we would like a validation tool that will signal to the workforce.”

The final product will be a competency-based, stackable certification, said Alan Todd, CorpU’s CEO. Stackable credentials are a relatively new concept, where all pieces -- ranging from a certificate based on a few credits to a Ph.D. -- are designed to fit together so students don’t lose time and money when they move back and forth from college to the workforce.

The difference with stackable certificates the College Employer Collaborative creates, said Todd, is that they will be “employer-based credentials” rather than ones primarily designed by colleges. And they have a good chance of being valuable in the workforce, since employers are creating them.

“We wanted to flip the supply and demand equation,” he said.

Second Career and First-Time Student

The new project builds on similar work other community colleges have begun.

One example is the Global Corporate College, which is a consortium of more than 50 community colleges that offer corporate training to companies, sometimes across state lines and even international boundaries.

A series of grants (with a particularly lengthy acronym) from the U.S. Department of Labor also has seeded partnerships between corporations and community colleges. Some of those joint projects feature competency-based learning.

Montgomery College, located in Maryland, is ahead of the curve in working with industry in skills development, experts said. The college has deep relationships with the many biotechnology and cybersecurity employers in the region.

Steve Greenfield is dean of business, information technology and safety for Montgomery College. He said the college does direct, custom training programs for more than 75 companies. It also partners with other colleges to serve slices of industries.

In addition, one relatively new project at the college resembles the model of General Assembly and other noninstitutional boot camps.

The college created a course in clinical trial project management with Amarex Clinical Research, a locally based firm. The course is open to bachelor’s degree holders, who meet every Saturday for 13 weeks.

“Amarex actually hires people out of the courses,” said Greenfield, who added that Montgomery College is looking to expand this style of course offering.

The expansion of partnerships between two-year colleges and major employers is a promising sign, said Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst at New America and a former official at the Labor Department and the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s leveraging what community colleges do well,” she said. “They should run with it.”

McCarthy raised one cautionary note, however. Many participants in corporate training programs at community colleges already hold degrees -- more than 70 percent in some cases. While McCarthy said the “finishing school” approach is valuable, she noted that community colleges also must focus on serving first-time students, many of whom are low income or the first in their families to attend college.

Short-term certifications that feature insight from employers should be for students who are just starting a career as well as second-career students, said McCarthy. “How do we do both?”

In the meantime, college officials with the College Employer Collaborative said the project is about opening doors for a broad range of students. One reason, said James Genandt, vice president for student learning at Neosho County, is that most of the corporate partnerships are new relationships for the college.

Genandt also said the CorpU platform provides a level of sophistication that would be difficult for Neosho to pull off on its own. That helped sell the project to students, employers, faculty and staff, he said.

“It’s a huge win-win,” said Genandt. “It’s going to help us serve a lot of people.”

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