Community College Partnerships Offer Untapped Talent Pools


By Amy Gulati April 13, 2016

A national nonprofit is partnering with community colleges around the country to develop a retail certification program that prepares primarily low-income students for successful careers in the service industry.

Hiring for the service industry can often feel like a numbers game where high turnover rates require having a constant stream of candidates. Positions that go unfilled or that are filled with the wrong candidates have a direct impact on customer experience and therefore on the bottom line of the business.

In low-margin industries like retail and hospitality, it can be difficult for HR professionals to justify heavy investment in workforce training or make an argument for selective hiring practices when time-to-fill is paramount. Yet the consequences of lack of training directly impact the business.

Into this gap venture organizations like Achieving the Dream Inc. (ATD), which is dedicated to helping more community college students, particularly low-income students and students of color, achieve the job skills they need to be successful. Through its Building Stronger Pathways to Retail Careers program, ATD has partnered with community colleges all over the country and, since 2015, provided them with grants to develop retail certification programs to help guide students into middle-skill careers in this sector.

As retailers are keenly aware, there is no uniform standard for certification in sales or customer service, and therefore new hires are generally trained on the job, if at all.

By contrast, students who’ve studied at an institution with an ATD retail pathways program graduate with a thorough understanding of service and sales best practices that they can apply on the job immediately, said Samaad Keys, associate director, programs and policy, with ATD.

Altarius Moody, an instructor in an ATD-funded service industry program at Durham Technical Community College in Durham, N.C., succinctly captures the hopes for return on employer investment: “When you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of the guests. When you have guest satisfaction and meet guest expectations, you’ll have repeat business.” And thus an investment in well-trained employees pays a direct dividend.

Janet Wincko, vice president of human resources for City Furniture stores in South Florida, explains how a partnership with Broward College’s retail pathways program aligns with her company’s recruiting philosophy to hire top talent into its retail and sales management internship and trainee programs. City Furniture has had long-standing recruiting partnerships with four-year institutions throughout Florida. Through the partnership with Broward College, it accesses a talent pool of students who are ready and committed to pursuing a career in retail, so educating them about the industry or convincing them of the value of the opportunity isn’t a recruiting obstacle, she said.

Working Together

The colleges want to engage employers directly to develop specific and tailored criteria for their curriculum, Keys said.

Stephanie Etter, interim dean for business and management programs at Broward College, confirmed that employers get the most out of recruiting partnerships when they take an interest in shaping the classroom experience instead of reactively hiring candidates and hoping they’ve learned the right things. “[We] want the curriculum to align with the skills the local business community needs,” she said, so the college requires ongoing input from the business community to make this happen.

Angela Davis, ATD career navigator at Durham Technical College, agreed that the retail pathways program must have input from industry professionals in order to ensure that student learning is relevant and applicable to real-life job scenarios.

City Furniture not only gives input on the learning plan at Broward College, it also sends ambassadors to the classroom to show students how to apply what they’ve learned in the real world. According to Wincko, students have found these classroom presentations helpful and engaging.

“Promoting our store and our career opportunities is a side benefit” of this type of involvement, she said. Done correctly and in partnership with the professor and school, these classroom presentations can serve as an engaging, realistic job preview for future hires and can get them excited about the company before they’ve even graduated, she explained.

Etter emphasized that the feedback and communication should go both ways. “We often find that once students are placed, it’s harder to get feedback from employers,” she noted. Companies that are truly looking to capitalize on these partnerships should continue to stay involved by letting the school know what training was most effective and what curriculum needs continued tweaking, she said.

Amy Gulati, SHRM-SCP, is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.


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