Supply for demand

A growing number of four-year institutions are investing in workforce development—and here's how any college can successfully find and maintain industry partnerships

Workforce development has long been a bastion of the community college environment. But with student-loan debt topping $1 trillion and enrollments falling, many four-year colleges and universities are devoting more attention to the area, in part as a way to boost their own relevance within a challenging global economy.

Because these programs tend to be geared toward the needs of a local labor market, it makes sense that smaller, regional colleges are getting involved in workforce development. Yet, larger, nationally-recognized schools are also making headway in establishing employment-focused academic programs and initiatives through industry partnerships.

“In this economy, universities have become very cognizant of the job market for their graduates, and as a result, have begun to acknowledge their role in workforce preparation, and as a key player in the workforce system,” says Chris Zirkle, associate professor and section head of Workforce Development and Education (WDE) at The Ohio State University. With about 175 undergraduate and graduate students, OSU’s WDE program targets those working in such fields as education, corporate training and human resources. “Most are already working for schools, organizations and state agencies, and are looking to advance their careers,” says Zirkle.

Partnerships with school districts, community and technical colleges, state agencies, private companies, and nonprofits help OSU’s students gain access to internship and research opportunities. At the same time, the university furthers its community outreach goals, one of its priorities as a land-grant institution.

There can be more concrete goals, as well. At Vincennes University in Indiana, workforce initiatives bring in high-quality equipment. The College of Technology, which offers degrees in industrial technology, has comprehensive partnerships with several corporations, including John Deere, Toyota and Hurco, an Indiana-based machine tools manufacturing company.

Art Haase, dean of Vincennes’ College of Technology, says Hurco has put $1.7 million worth of equipment into the technology labs. John Deere provides $2.3 million of equipment over the course of each year. “If students are trained on a specific brand of equipment, they become very loyal,”

Haase says of the corporate motivation for providing it. “These are the graduates who are going to make the buying recommendations for the companies they’re going to work for.”

Students get access to high-paying internships and on-the-job training at major corporations, which can be part of workforce development partnerships. Upon graduation, VU’s precision machining students near 100 percent job placement and earn, on average, a starting salary of $40,000 to $50,000.

In the process of boosting an institution’s relevance and resources, workforce development can also help increase enrollment. “The fastest-growing programs we have are those where we have partnerships,” says Haase.

Workforce development has impacted enrollment at Clemson University’s College of Engineering, which houses the South Carolina university’s Center for Workforce Development. The college saw an 18 percent increase in applications for this academic year, says Rebecca Hartley, director of pathways for the center. Launched in 2012 as the result of a National Science Foundation grant, the center has partnerships with all 16 technical colleges in the state of South Carolina, which also helps provide a pathway for students from these schools to the university through 2+2 and 1+3 degree programs.

But while the advantages of workforce development may be clear, the best way to forge these partnerships and initiatives may not be so obvious. Following are five important points to bear in mind when trying to launch a workforce development program.

1. Research thoroughly.

Understanding the needs of the marketplace is the first step to getting started with workforce development, says Brian Savarese, executive director of the Denver Learning Institute, a subsidiary of for-profit Bridgepoint Education.

Collecting qualitative and quantitative research are both key. A source of the information is a company such as Burning Glass or Wanted Technologies, which offer real-time labor market data that can help an institution learn about the most in-demand jobs and qualifications.

But numbers won’t reveal the whole picture: Getting closely involved with the community—through regular conversations with companies, Chambers of Commerce and other relevant agencies—is important, says Savarese.

Clemson, for example, hosts forums throughout the state of South Carolina to bring educators together with industry leaders, economic developers, career center representatives and politicians. “It’s a call to action,” says Hartley, “to look at what partnerships can be put together, and to make educators more aware of what industry needs. We always make new partnerships when we do these kinds of things.” A recent forum focused specifically on improving access to digital learning tools, establishing new pathways to higher education through stackable certificates, supporting P-20 (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM) education, and bringing awareness to workforce education and training programs.

2. Listen well.

To stay on top of the labor market’s needs, Vincennes administrators maintain an active advisory committee of potential employers. Yet, officials realize that simply holding conversations with industry partners is not enough.

“A lot of four-year schools tend to feel that they know best, better than the industry that they’re graduating kids for,” says Haase. “We don’t select people based upon the thought that they’re going to rubber-stamp or say what we want to hear. We select companies we know will be very honest about where we’re going, where we need to go and what we need to potentially change.”

Recently, for example, the advisory committee recommended students in the Advanced Manufacturing Toyota program take an applied algebra course in addition to and before the standard college algebra offering. The idea was that students would learn the practical, rather than purely abstract, principles of the subject. That suggestion has now been incorporated into the curriculum.

Haase also encourages individual faculty who teach courses in these programs to have industry partners take a critical look at their curricula and ask the hard questions to help enhance their relevance to workforce needs.

3. Make workforce development relevant and accessible.

Workforce development is synonymous with employability, says Tom Darling, national director of workforce education for Pearson, adding that “the proper way to look at workforce development” is to ask questions such as:

  • How are the degrees offered providing relevance to the market?
  • How do students know that what they’re getting is aligned with what employers need and want?

Incorporating industry-recognized certifications into four-year degree programs is a growing workforce development trend, he says.

Clemson’s innovations include incorporating virtual reality tools into online courses “to give students a feel for what it’s like on the manufacturing floor.” The school has also developed courses to help students prepare for a national certification exam for manufacturing.

“What we do should lead to employment, and if it doesn’t, then we need to change what we’re doing,” Hartley says.

Since workforce education often appeals to nontraditional students who have full-time jobs, families and other life commitments, flexibility and accessibility are key. In terms of course design, it’s important to offer multiple modalities, says Savarese of DLI. His institution offers online, in-person and hybrid courses, as well as self-directed learning options, all taught by working professionals.

4. Partner right.

For Clemson, developing a wide range of partnerships in strategic areas has been a priority, says Hartley. In addition to industry partners such as BMW, Boeing and GE, Clemson’s WD center partners with 52 school districts, 16 technical colleges, four advanced technological education centers and several government agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration.

The relationships are reciprocal: Partners bring knowledge capital into the university, while the university serves in a consulting role and provides resources and funding to the technical colleges and schools.

Partnerships may also be in the education industry. DLI, for example, works with Pearson’s Workforce Education division to utilize its learning materials. Pearson has provided insight into employment and labor market trends based on its gathered data—information that has been used to guide decisions about what kinds of programs DLI should offer, says Savarese.

5. Attend to reputation.

To gain good partners, a strong reputation goes a long way. “Employers will return to programs that graduate good employees and have a history of that,” says Haase. “As word gets out about what exactly we’re doing and who we’re partnering with, other companies are coming here and wanting to be a part of it.”

Vincennes’ recently-established partnership with Hurco, for example, was modeled on its existing relationship with Lincoln Electric, which provides the school with multiprocess welding equipment. Representatives from Subaru, Toyota and Honda also come to Vincennes to interview freshman manufacturing students, many of whom receive internships that pay $17 an hour, and even include free housing for some, depending on how far away they live.

It’s just one example of how the motivation to launch workforce development partnerships comes from both sides. Haase says, “Companies [are] coming to the realization that they have to participate and partner with university programs that meet their needs.”

Ioanna Opidee is a Connecticut-based writer and an adjunct at Fairfield University.

Burning Glass,
Business-Higher Education Forum,
Clemson University Center for Workforce Development, centers-institutes/cucwd
Denver Learning Institute,
Geographic Solutions,
The Ohio State University Workforce Development and Education Program, studies/wde/
Pearson Workforce Education,
Vincennes University College of Technology,
Wanted Technologies,


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