How Community Colleges Can Establish Better Partnerships with Employers


(The RAND Blog)

Engineer trains apprentices on machinery, photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

by Rita T. Karam

June 6, 2019

This commentary is part of a series on issues relevant to congressional efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

Welding, nursing, informatics, project engineering: entry into these and other critical careers require that students gain technical as well as academic knowledge to succeed. Because the demand for skilled workers is almost always high, it is not surprising that career and technical education or “CTE” programs have grown in community colleges across the nation in the last ten years. CTE programs give students a chance to engage in learning relevant to their chosen fields and apply immediately for a broad choice of jobs—some of them very well paid.

Career and technical education programs give students a chance to engage in learning relevant to their chosen fields and apply immediately for a broad choice of jobs—some of them very well paid.

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Key to the success of both CTE programs and their students are the partnerships (PDF) that community colleges build with local and regional employers. These relationships can help the colleges create programs that respond directly to high-tech labor needs in the community. Involved employers can inform course offerings and curricula with industry and career information and examples of real-world problems. They can also donate and provide technical equipment and supplement instruction by providing internships and apprenticeships to students.

However, despite several federal- and state-funded programs that promote these relationships, employers still largely play a limited role in informing community college CTE programs. Community colleges often struggle (PDF) to develop formal partnerships with employers and industry representatives. As a result, improvements to CTE programs are only piecemeal.

For example, community colleges tend to engage only in informal conversations with employers regarding employer needs, or have representatives serve on advisory boards that meet a few times a year to inform future needs of industry. Others connect with employers for the purpose of engaging them in student-related activities such as career fairs or CTE-related speakers' series. It is little wonder that CTE-employer partnerships become burdensome to both parties. Maintaining a relationship becomes time consuming, with little strategic vision or clear articulation of how activities would be mutually beneficial or lead to improved programs or student outcomes.

Community colleges face several challenges in forming richer partnerships with employers. These include insufficient time to cultivate meaningful relationships and inadequate or ineffective allocation of resources for establishing formal partnership-building mechanisms. There is also a general lack of understanding of each other's organizational structures and missions that could be a barrier for developing productive relationships.

There are several options that policymakers could consider to help community colleges establish stronger and more sustainable partnerships with employers and industry experts, with the aim of ensuring that students are getting the skills and credentials they need to transition into the labor market.

  • Policymakers could consider facilitating the dissemination of best practices for community colleges in developing strong and sustainable partnerships with employers. Meaningfully involved employers are more motivated to continue and sustain the partnership and engage in central activities, such as providing apprenticeships and internships. States could consider requiring evidence of such partnerships when providing grants to community colleges.
  • Federal and state policymakers could consider incentivizing businesses to partner with colleges.
  • State governments can provide a valuable role in providing necessary information to help strengthen partnerships between community colleges and industry. For example, states could purchase analytic tools for analyzing labor market needs without burdening employers for such data. Colleges would then be able to redirect their interaction with employers to more meaningful engagement than just a source of forecasting of labor market information.
  • Community colleges could hire staff (PDF) who understand the structure and missions of both community colleges and industry to serve as liaisons to industry partners.

A strategic vision of collaboration between industry and community colleges can be of great benefit to all parties involved, and policymakers at the federal, state, and institution level all have an opportunity to help to optimize these partnerships.

Rita Karam is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.