In a time when information is critical to success and budgets are tied to outcomes, the need for strategic employer engagement with colleges has never been greater. No longer can programs thrive with limited input from local employers. All community and technical colleges must stay informed of—and respond to—industry-specific trends that impact skill sets, national standards, and credentials.
Business advisory committees typically meet once or twice a year and have limited interaction with their colleges between meetings. That is merely the beginning of engagement. Colleges exist to prepare a workforce that is ready to serve communities and to prepare students for continuous learning in rapidly changing businesses. Not only are colleges recognizing that their mission requires greater employer input and engagement, but employers are realizing that if they expect to hire well-qualified graduates from their local colleges, they must seek ways to engage with the colleges.
According to a study conducted by Gallup for Inside Higher Ed, 96 percent of chief academic officers claimed to be “extremely or somewhat confident” that their institutions are preparing students for success in the workforce. In contrast, just 11 percent of employer representatives said they believe that graduates have the skills and competencies needed by their businesses.
Expanding Work-based Learning
As businesses evolve and new technologies are introduced, the need for skilled workers who meet the new challenges is growing in real time. Improving the link between education and business through internships, apprenticeships, and other work-based learning models leads to improvement not only in curriculum alignment but in graduates’ preparation for the workforce.
The Partnership Between Education and Industry
Programs developed by industry-education partnerships better prepare students by enabling them to acquire the skills needed to secure and thrive in today's jobs. The economic development impact of employer engagement is great. When local businesses are staffed by well-qualified employees, they thrive and expand, thereby boosting local economies. The case for increased employer engagement is easy to make when local businesses recognize its positive impact on their own growth strategies.
The extent and effectiveness of employer engagement are determined by the relationships between the members of each industry-education partnership. Every relationship is unique. Relationships vary by industry, levels of interest in engagement, hiring needs, organization size, personnel, and personalities. Because of this uniqueness colleges often struggle to manage their industry relationships, keep engagement at the forefront, and grow their partnerships with industry.
There are challenges on both sides of the relationship. These include time constraints, the need for a common language, and the natural slowness of systemic change, among other factors. Being open to discussing and addressing these challenges will enhance the partnership and allow for reasonable expectations to be set.
This toolkit is designed to help colleges identify new areas for engagement, implement engagement activities, and manage their partnerships. Based on our research, observation, and experiences, we will provide employer viewpoints, college best practices, and case studies of successful engagement activities.
The results of strategic employer and industry sector engagement include:
- Increased enrollment
- Increased hiring rate of graduates
- Better alignment between skills and curriculum
- Improved labs and facilities
- Increased mutual understanding and respect among business personnel and educators
- Increased community awareness of college programs
- Increased funding opportunities
The Need for Strategic Thinking
Employer engagement takes many forms and can start gradually and grow organically. However, maximizing the impact of the engagement requires strategic thinking.
When there is evidence of strong employer engagement in program development, all other areas of employer input will increase. For example, when the college has a strong model of engagement in program development, the following are likely to occur.
- It is easier to get other employers engaged and to generate new ways to connect them to the program and the college.
- Programs with input from employers lead to increased graduation and job placement rates.
- Engaged employers are aware of program and college needs and are more willing to connect them to their networks and resources and/or make donations.
- Engaged employers have an increased awareness of challenges and opportunities and are more likely to lend their names to programs through advocacy, sector leadership, and branding.
Through participation in sector partnerships, colleges can achieve deepened, ongoing relationships with employers in key local industries. This approach increases the ability of colleges to develop and offer real, market-relevant career pathways that prepare workers for good jobs in their community and ultimately result in hiring the graduates of the programs. (Corporation for a Skilled Workforce: Developing Market-Relevant Curricula and Credentials: Employer Engagement for Community Colleges in Partnerships)
Ways Businesses Can Help
- Recruit students
- Provide mentors
- Provide work-based learning experiences or in-service activities for instructors
- Provide industry-based training to instructors
- Support instructors’ memberships/participation in trade associations
- Provide work-based learning experiences for students (simulations, labs, field trips, internships, clinicals, paid and unpaid work experiences)
- Teach a module or topic
- Advise on resource needs (equipment, labs, staff qualifications, facilities)
- Assist in the acquisition of equipment and supplies
- Assist with placement of program completers
- Provide resources (equipment, materials, facilities)
- Share libraries of visual aids, books, and magazines
Assessment and Counsel
- Review curriculum (objectives, structure and length, curriculum frameworks and course descriptions, assessments, industry credentials, safety, course materials)
- Advise on academic, technical, and employability standards
- Modify existing programs and/or identify new or emerging fields for which programs should be developed
- Review student outcomes (completion rates, placement rates, and state licensing exam outcomes)
- Assist in surveys of local labor market needs
- Assist in identifying equipment needs
- Assess the equipment and facilities available and make recommendations as needed
Promotion and Advocacy
- Interpret the career pathway and program to the community
- Serve as an advocate of the career pathway and program
- Seek legislative support for the college and its programs
- Present to civic groups
- Write newspaper articles
- Assist in raising funds for scholarships, equipment, and other program needs
- Leverage community resources and broker community partnerships