How to Forge Successful Employer-College Partnerships

By Jamie Merisotis June 22, 2021
How to Forge Successful Employer-College Partnerships

The American economy is powered more and more by smart machines—automation that has greatly boosted productivity and built industrial and individual wealth. But, as we know, the digital revolution has come at a hefty price. As well-paying, blue-collar jobs are replaced by technology, too many of the jobs left are of poor quality and low pay.

They don’t have to be. Even an entry-level job, like a childcare or eldercare worker, can provide a living wage, paid sick leave, regular hours and opportunities for professional advancement. But to match workers with jobs like these, employers and educators must do a much better job of aligning with each other’s and workers’ needs. Only then can workers get the training that good jobs require—training not just in technical skills, but in the uniquely human capacities that will increasingly define our work: things like creativity, empathy and personal communication.

Forging and maintaining these employer-educator partnerships is notoriously hard. To borrow the familiar phrase, employers are from Mars and educators are from Venus. Businesses and educational institutions have vastly different missions, cultures and languages, and they operate on distinctly different timetables. At the risk of generalizing, businesses tend toward the transactional, while colleges lean toward the relational. In other words, the employer’s 10-minute stand-up is the college’s hour-long sit-down.

Many of these partnerships, typically between local employers and area community colleges, also depend heavily on individual relationships. That’s all well and good—until one person in the relationship decides to leave. Yet none of these problems matters unless the education and training leads to good jobs. And for that crucial outcome, the structure, design and goals of college-employer partnerships must change.

Successful workforce partnerships meet several essential needs. First, the institutions show that the credentials they offer lead directly to quality jobs that pay a living wage. Second, their students reflect the diversity of the community. Third, their credentials follow clear pathways: they are valuable on their own, but also count toward a more advanced credential or college degree. And, finally, the programs have high rates of completion.

New America points to a number of college-employer partnerships that to one degree or another exemplify these important traits. Here are just a few that lead the way:

  • Monroe Community College. The position of nurse’s assistant is a low-wage job, despite a certification. Monroe, in Rochester, N.Y., wanted to give that certification value. So in its training program with a local hospital, participants with no experience start at the wage of an experienced CNA. Students—most of them Black and Latina single mothers—are employed throughout the training period, given flexible schedules and moved along pathways that focus on improving job quality. The program doesn’t award college credit, but it helps students become licensed practical nurses. The cost? There isn’t one for those employed through the program.
  • Dallas Community College. In Texas, 130 students, diverse and mostly Pell-eligible, take for-credit or non-credit courses leading to certification as a Cisco Networking Professional. They start at $21 an hour and earn another $25,000 upon graduation. They can also take general education courses toward an Applied Associate of Arts degree or transfer to a four-year college for an applied baccalaureate degree. Tuition is just $1,000.
  • Mesa Community College. In the Phoenix area, Boeing Co. has partnered with Mesa to train 450 electrical technicians in cable harness wiring. The two-and-half-year “boot camp” leads to industry certification, three credit hours toward an associate degree, and a guaranteed interview with Boeing—all for $270, which is fully reimbursed upon completion. Of 234 students Boeing recently interviewed, 211 have been offered jobs. Graduates report starting salaries 40 percent higher than the local living wage.
  • Brazosport College. The Jump Start program at this Texas community college trains participants as pipefitters at no cost to students. (Tuition is paid through public and private grants.) Students earn a stackable credential and nine credit hours toward further credentials or an associate or applied baccalaureate degree. The program enjoys an 89 percent completion rate, and many participants go on to further education. Remarkably, students who made $9 an hour before enrolling were earning $24.15 when they finished.

Workforce programs like these prove the value of carefully aligned, smartly designed collaborations that put a premium on quality jobs, however modest the pay. They succeed because the colleges have tapped into something that is core to the employer’s business model, and because they staff and organize themselves in a way that reflects that core need.

We need more of them. Because when the partnerships work, their graduates work.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and the author of Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.

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