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Industry and community college leaders need to improve their partnerships to better support students, according to a new report.

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A new report, released today, concludes that community college leaders and employers are failing to partner with each other in ways that meet both of their needs.

The findings are based on November 2020 surveys of employers and community college leaders, conducted by the Harvard Business School Project on Managing the Future of Work and the American Association of Community Colleges.

The surveys elicited responses from 800 senior executives, senior managers and middle managers, and 347 community college leaders responded, representing a quarter of community colleges nationwide. Researchers also conducted field interviews with college and business leaders.

The report describes a “growing gulf between those who teach and those who hire.” It finds employers struggle to find the workers they need at community colleges, trained in the ways they want, for middle-skills jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, community college leaders find it difficult to engage employers in curriculum development, to get a clear sense of what skills would make graduates competitive and to secure internship and apprenticeship opportunities for their students. The report suggests this dynamic contributes to labor shortages as the country emerges from the pandemic and a growing reliance on outsourcing and automation.

“The net result is a middle-skills environment in disequilibrium, underserving the needs of aspiring workers, employers, and ultimately, communities,” the report reads.

Survey results show community college leaders appear more eager to partner with industry leaders than vice versa. The vast majority of college administrators, 98 percent, agreed these partnerships are “very important,” compared to 59 percent of employers.

“The level of commitment by the majority of employers is really pretty low,” said report author Joseph Fuller, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School who co-chairs the Project on Managing the Future of Work. “Over all, there just isn’t an undercurrent [of] urgency or desire to get to some new level.”

Fuller believes this is partly because employers increasingly have other options for finding job candidates, including boot camps, LinkedIn and job sites.

Employers use community colleges as a workforce pipeline, but many didn’t seem confident their training would prepare students for jobs in their industries. Most industry leaders, 84 percent, said that they hire community college graduates. But only 36 percent indicated they agreed that community colleges produce “work-ready” employees needed by their companies. Another 26 percent strongly agreed.

Community college leaders also expressed doubt that industry leaders would meet the needs of their students. The survey found that only 11 percent of community college leaders believed employers were willing to set hiring targets, and only 10 percent believed employers would be willing to offer guaranteed jobs to students who completed a program.

Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, said in an email that community colleges and businesses need better communication.

“Businesses need to be clear about the skills needed for their workforce and colleges need to clearly articulate how they can provide relevant training,” he said. “Looking at it from the 30,000 foot view, it makes sense that each sector is focused on their own operational needs and day-to-day organizational demands, but building a workforce pipeline that is effective requires not only a commitment from both sides but also a willingness to break down internal and external silos to implement effective programs.”

The report found that industry leaders did less than their community college counterparts to foster collaboration. Employers were presented with a list of more than 40 action steps they could take with community college leaders to improve partnerships, and when asked which actions they’d already taken, no item on the list was implemented by more than 60 percent of employers. When given that same list, community college leaders indicated that 32 of the action items were already implemented at 75 percent to 100 percent of their institutions.

Business and community college leaders are also coming into partnerships with some negative views of one another. For example, a third of community college leaders felt their graduates weren’t paid well enough by employers, and half felt employers had unrealistic expectations about the rate at which they could meet workforce demands. Meanwhile, 44 percent of employers believed community colleges provide lower-quality job candidates compared to four-year universities.

Community college leaders “think there are perception problems of their institutions and their institutions aren’t understood,” Fuller said. “In fact, there are negative perceptions. A lot of employers think that the instruction really isn’t that good, and in a lot of areas the schools aren’t flexible enough, they aren’t responsive enough. When you start digging, you get to some more sharp-edged, sharp-toned opinions.”

Bumphus said this finding is a “red flag” and a “call to action” for community colleges to “further develop a clear and unequivocal case for support of these programs.”

He also noted that the surveys were fielded at a time when the pandemic waylaid many workforce development programs, which traditionally require in-person training, and that may have affected the results. But the pandemic also forced community colleges to find new ways to offer these programs remotely and develop and use technology, which can benefit these programs and business partnerships in the future, he said.

Christina Hubbard, senior director of research advisory services at EAB, an education consulting firm, said strong partnerships between businesses and community colleges are especially important in a tight labor market when it’s harder to fill job openings. She noted that demographic cliffs—declines in traditional college-age populations in some regions—are not only contributing to college enrollment drops but shrinking pools of prospective employees.

Against that backdrop, “employers have no choice but to invest in technology,” said Hubbard, whose research focuses on community colleges. “But if they’re going to make these investments in technology, they need the skilled workforce in order to use that technology,” and that’s where community colleges can help.

Colleges and businesses also aren’t sharing data that would help them improve these relationships, or necessarily even collecting them, according to the report. A third of business leaders surveyed believed it wasn’t worth the time and resources to collect data on their recruitment from community colleges. Two-thirds of community college leaders didn’t know what percentage of their students were working while in college.

Fuller said both community colleges and industries could stand to benefit from better partnerships. He noted that community colleges have suffered enrollment drops and part of attracting students is offering “better assurance that study can lead somewhere that the learner will find attractive” and working with local employers to offer upskilling opportunities. Employers are facing workforce shortages and are also interested in diversifying their businesses.

“They’re absolutely adamant and committed to making progress, and as we all know, community college student bodies tend to be significantly more diverse, certainly in race and ethnicity, than other institutions of higher ed,” he said.

Hubbard noted that whole communities are affected by colleges and businesses working together effectively.

“If local employers can’t get the talent that they need, they’re going to move their organizations to areas where they can get that talent,” she said. “That means communities that are already struggling are going to end up struggling more … Tighter partnerships are going to end up equating to a stronger fit between community college graduates and their employers, which is going to be a win for all of our communities.”

The report ultimately sets three goals for community colleges and their industry partners: align educational training at colleges with industry needs, create partnerships that lead to the hiring of more students and alumni, and make data-informed supply and demand decisions. The report offers three strategy suggestions for each goal, a total of nine recommendations, including co-designing programs that take students’ schedules and industry hiring cycles into account, dedicating staff time at both colleges and businesses to foster these partnerships, and gathering and sharing data on local supply and demand for talent. It also lists 44 action steps community colleges and businesses could take to improve their partnerships, ranging from colleges offering microcredentials and workplace writing courses to employers hosting job-site visits for community colleges and training community college instructors.

Fuller hopes the report will be an opportunity for self-reflection among community college and business leaders.

“There are no innocent parties here, nor are there any villains,” he said. “It’s just that people, for the 21st century, need to revisit the model and be prepared to experiment, to change and to partner.”

He also wants state lawmakers to reflect on how they can help bridge the gaps.

“It doesn’t matter if your state is dark red or midnight blue,” he said. “Who’s against more good economic outcomes for more young people?”

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