Industry insiders in higher ed

4 things community colleges should consider when partnering with local industries
By: | Issue: November, 2016
October 21, 2016

From construction workers and machinists to occupational therapists and fire fighters, skilled laborers are in high demand. And shortages of employees like these are making it difficult for companies to fill jobs.

In a July 2016 survey, the National Association for Business Economics found that 31 percent of its members experienced labor shortages; and the Manufacturing Institute estimates that 2 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled in the next decade due to a lack of qualified workers.

Community colleges are well-positioned to train workers to fill these skills gaps. By partnering with industries in the regions they serve, these institutions can expand existing job training programs and develop new curricula to meet current and emerging employment needs.

“Community colleges are, by design, adaptable to their communities,” says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “By meeting the needs of industry, you are, in turn, meeting the needs of students who want to graduate with great jobs.”

Creating new programs (or tweaking existing offerings) requires more than just identifying and anticipating employment trends and local hiring needs. Community colleges must remain true to their educational missions while ensuring their programming aligns with industry needs—but not too closely, as schools risk their reputation if partnerships put business needs before student success.

Here are four things to consider before launching industry-aligned programs.

1. All stakeholders should be involved.

Rowan College at Burlington County in New Jersey sends many of its health science students to Virtua Health System to complete clinical requirements in programs such as respiratory therapy and radiography. Officials at this community college built on that partnership with the development of a paramedic science program.

This fall, 80 students enrolled in certificate and associate degree programs to work as emergency medical technicians or nationally registered paramedics. The program, called Virtua Paramedic Science at RCBC, represents an industry partnership that allowed the hospital to expand its current program (which was being offered in partnership with a smaller college) and help to train its future employees.

“Our workforce development initiatives have always put industry at the forefront,” says Rowan President Paul Drayton.

In addition to hosting focus groups with local hospitals and health care centers to understand hiring needs, the college engaged its staff in all phases of program development, from creating the curriculum to soliciting feedback about the viability of the program.

“It was important to us to partner with industry but we needed faculty participation too—the process has to be collaborative,” Drayton says. “When we’re all at the table, we can have conversations about what is missing from the curriculum—or what needs to be taught better—to make sure our students have the skills to go straight to work after graduation.”

The college is in the midst of hiring a project manager to oversee industry relationships, respond to curriculum and program request from local companies, and act as a liaison between faculty and employers. “We want to make sure that we’re partnering in meaningful ways,” says Drayton.

2. Needs change—and programs will too.

When manufacturers approached Ivy Tech Community College about a strong demand for machine tool technicians, administrators took immediate action. The problem: Companies had immediate openings for skilled workers and couldn’t wait for students to graduate from the 30-credit hour program offered by 10 of the 32 campus locations.

As part of the partnership, the South Bend Campus of the Indiana college agreed to adjust its curriculum, compressing two semesters of training into a 12-week program that ran eight hours per day, five days per week.

“We have always been aligned with workforce needs and not meeting those needs could hurt our reputation,” says Margaret Semmer, vice chancellor of academic affairs for the northwest and north-central regions of Ivy Tech.

Officials at the institution meet with an advisory board twice per year to review curriculum and add new classes and programs as needed. Administrators cut programs when there is no longer a demand from local partners. Earlier this year, the Terre Haute campus announced the discontinuation of its aviation maintenance program, citing a lack of local jobs.

“Industry partnerships can be unpredictable,” Semmer says. “Sometimes we do the research, develop the partnerships and do the marketing to bring in students and then there is a hiring freeze. We’ve had to phase out programs because of changing industry needs.”

Successful industry-aligned partnerships require flexibility. The more adaptable community colleges can be to local hiring needs, the greater the chances curricula can meet the needs of students, companies and local communities.

“One of our goals is to provide students with a variety of programming options, but we want to make sure that those options fit with the needs of the local labor market,” Semmer says. “That requires constantly talking to our partners and reevaluating what we’re offering.”

3. Creativity counts.

In 2014, Moberly Area Community College launched a mechatronics program to help fill the need for manufacturing technicians around its Columbia, Missouri, campus.

The two-year program has grown from five students in its initial semester to 64. To date, the corporation 3M has hired most of the students before graduation.

To ensure students had the skills 3M needed in its Missouri manufacturing plant, the company worked with the college to create the curriculum and hire the instructor. 3M has also sent several of its existing employees through the program to expand their skills.

To maximize the return on investment by reaching as many students as possible, the college applied for—and received—a $345,995 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program to create a mobile mechatronics lab that hit the road this fall.

Many companies in rural Missouri, including General Mills, want to partner with the college but can’t send employees to campus for training, says Jo Fey, dean of career and technical education. “We can take the classroom on the road to increase enrollment and address local labor needs.”

Developing robust industry partnerships has given the college a clear picture of local workforce needs and has inspired creative solutions to address labor shortages. In the mechatronics program, part of the strategy to graduate more skilled workers includes marketing the course to a wide range of students.

The on-campus curriculum and the mobile mechatronics lab attract nontraditional students, including those who are unemployed or underemployed. The college also partners with local high schools to offer the first four classes as dual credit classes.

“The goal of workforce development programs is to train as many students to go out into the workforce as quickly as possible,” Fey says. “To do that, we try to think as creatively and futuristically as possible when we create new programs.”

4. Industry partners can provide funding.

Gateway Technical College embeds company-branded industry certifications into its associate degree programs by providing the latest tools and equipment from companies such as Chrysler-Fiat, Snap on Tools, TRANE, Dremel 3D and Starrett Corporation.

“The college has to invest to get its labs up-to-speed with the latest equipment,” says Bryan Albrecht, president of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, institution. “Any time there are changes in the industry, we have to make changes [to our labs and equipment]—and we can’t pass those costs on to students.”

Industry partnerships have helped Gateway offset the cost of acquiring the necessary state-of-the-art equipment for these programs. Some companies provide significant discounts on the cost of the equipment, while others provide financial support. All companies offer free testing to help students achieve third-party industry certifications for their coursework without increasing tuition or fees. Certain industry partners have even funded curriculum development and professional development for instructors.

“Our partners are very invested in these programs,” Albrecht says.

The college reevaluates its curricula for its 60 degree programs and 20 industry credentials every 18 months, updating technology to reflect changes in the industry and communicating with partners to ensure programming meets their hiring needs.

“Things change constantly and we have to respond, like industry, to stay current,” Albrecht says. “It’s driven us to be more innovative, and that’s helped our business partners reevaluate the value of the local community college.”

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based writer.