Community Colleges, Businesses Disconnected on Workforce Development: Report

Community colleges want more collaboration with companies in their efforts to produce work-ready graduates.
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  • Community colleges are key to workforce development, but educators say employers need to do more to collaborate on programs.
  • Just 7% of community college leaders surveyed gave employers an "A" grade to signify that they were very satisfied with collaboration.
  • Businesses rated themselves much higher, with 28% giving themselves an "A," according to Harvard Business School and the American Association of Community Colleges.

Partnerships between businesses and community colleges have been ramping up in a bid to close the skills gap in the U.S. — but new research shows college and business leaders are divided.

In the recent joint survey by Harvard Business School and the American Association of Community Colleges, educators said they've struggled to get employers engaged in their work training programs, leading to a disconnect between employers and community colleges.

Business leaders, meanwhile, were split as to whether community colleges were producing work-ready graduates, pointing to a divide between key partners in workforce development programs.

Community colleges are increasingly vehicles for workforce development. Google and Microsoft have both looked to community colleges for tech training, and Amazon has made big investments in community colleges to help build out computer science programs and reach historically underrepresented students.

Various government programs also feature community colleges as key partners in training workers — including a $500 million Department of Commerce initiative launched earlier this year.

But a lack of availability of work-based learning experiences, combined with graduates who discover that "they lack the technical and foundational skills needed to secure positions to which they had aspired," has led to a system that underserves aspiring workers, according to the report.

Educators Want More Collaboration

Educators were largely unsatisfied with collaboration on workforce development from local employers, according to the report: Just 7% of community colleges surveyed gave employers an "A" grade to signify that they were very satisfied with collaboration.

Businesses rated themselves much higher, with 28% giving themselves an "A" grade, according to the report.

"To improve their performance materially, community colleges require far more engagement from employers, but they have come to accept employers' ambivalent engagement," the report reads. "Community college leaders have low expectations for more substantive collaboration. Out of a list of more than 40 actions for collaboration, they were least likely to take action pertaining to student job placement."

Educators and employers showed a wide divide over the importance of partnerships to create a work-ready workforce. While 98% of community colleges said partnering is "very important" for the future workforce, only 59% of employers did.

"The survey reveals that employers are yet to perceive the magnitude of the opportunity of partnering with community colleges," the report reads. "When asked the fundamental question on how important it was for employers and community colleges to partner to produce a work-ready workforce, the responses were starkly different. Nearly all the community college leaders saw collaboration as a pressing priority; far fewer employers reported the same sense of urgency."

Employers also tended to grade themselves more highly on collaboration than community college leaders scored them. While 28% of employers said they were "very satisfied" with their collaboration with community colleges, just 16% of community college leaders said the same.

Community colleges tended to receive better grades from employers than they gave themselves: While just 7% of community college leaders said they were "very satisfied" with their own collaborative efforts, 28% of employers said they were very satisfied with community colleges' efforts.

One bright spot for collaboration, however, was that more than half of both community college and business leaders said the state of collaboration had improved over the past three years.

Mixed Reviews on Whether Grads Are Workforce-Ready

About 26% of employers surveyed said that they "strongly agreed" that community colleges are producing work-ready employees for their company, compared with 21% of community colleges.

Another 36% of employers said they "agree," whereas 59% of community colleges said so. A further 24% of employers and 15% of community colleges said they neither agreed or disagreed.

"However, despite being required to adapt their business models in the face of competition from new entrants, employers have clung to their old models of sourcing talent instead of engaging with educators," the report reads.

"For most companies the focus of attention has been on surviving the competitive forces at work outside the company. Far less time and thought has been expended on how all this technology is disrupting what's happening inside the company."

There was also a gap between the perceived importance of workforce development goals between community college and business leaders.

Roughly 83% of community college leaders said it was "extremely important" for community colleges to partner with employers to offer training that is aligned with industry needs, compared with 44% of employers.

Another 32% of employers and 16% of community college leaders said that was "very important," and 15% of employers said it was "moderately important."

Similar gaps appeared in whether it was important for employers and community colleges to set up relationships for job recruitment and make decisions informed by the latest data and trends.

Both Business and Higher Ed Need to Step Up

Educators and employers need to focus on three key areas for successful workforce development, according to the report: offering training that is aligned with industry needs, establishing relationships to create a job pipeline, and making workforce decisions based on the latest trends.

"No amount of effort by community colleges can compensate for the lack of engagement by employers," the report reads. "Employers, in their own self-interest, cannot afford to ignore investing in their talent pipeline."

The report includes a slew of recommendations for educators and employers to take in a bid to boost workforce development. Researchers excluded elements of financial partnerships in their recommendations to avoid focusing on fundraising and donations, but rather to highlight management actions and long-term processes.

Some of those recommendations include working together to set up standards for students, offering expanded credentials and work opportunities, helping workers already in the field upgrade their skills, and sharing data on local talent and workforce needs while also setting up a pipeline for graduates to get jobs.