By James Jacobs, President Emeritus, Macomb Community College
March 28, 2023
Those of us who worked in community colleges in the 1990s can marvel at how much they have changed in the last 30 years. Back then, we defined ourselves as low-cost places for adults to start their education. We were not fazed that many students took only “remedial” classes. We emphasized access, flexibility, and ease of admission into our courses, not completion or student success. The more programs and courses we offered, the better we thought we served students.
As we know, community college practice has changed considerably. The adoption of the guided pathways model for organizing program exploration and entry for students, the emphasis on student services, the significance of accountability and program effectiveness, and the concern for equitable student outcomes define the contemporary community college. If there were a time machine, and current community college staff could journey back to their institutions 30 years ago, a great deal of it would be unfamiliar to them.
Except for one area: Workforce and economic development activities are pretty much unchanged. The staff in these workforce units practice the same model utilized in the 1990s—a transactional model. The process starts with the community college asking a local private sector employer what skills they need in their employees and then striving to deliver those skills to their students, who get hired or retrained. This model assumes a tight relationship between community colleges and employers, where employers are actively involved in community college programs and are motivated to hire students mainly from these institutions.
However, the disturbing news from a recently completed survey of employers and community college presidents by Joseph Fuller and Manjari Raman from Harvard Business School calls into question the existence and effectiveness of this model. In The Partnership Imperative, Fuller and Raman report on an extensive survey of corporate leaders and community college presidents concerning their views on each other and their respective organizations. Their findings reveal a loose connection between most community college leaders and their employer partners. Employers view community colleges as one of many options for hiring workers and do not necessarily see community college students as better prepared than workers from other local sources. They also do not believe community colleges understand or are sympathetic to their businesses. In turn, many community college leaders play little role in maintaining direct ties with companies or in promoting their students’ workforce talents and capabilities. They tend to leave that to others in their administration and assume that employers value their programs.
As a result, the collaboration between community colleges and employers is often superficial at best, impacting students’ ability to find sustainable employment. Employers not invested in community college relationships are vague about what skills they need. The colleges, faced with little guidance from the firms, develop their programs and curriculum relying on insufficient information and advice from their staff and advisory boards. In the process, the needs of students, particularly low-income students of color, are not considered much. The programs end up being influenced more by the needs of the faculty or the institution and less by what the students or the companies need. There are exceptions to this state of affairs, but they usually involve boutique programs based on personal ties between individual college staff and a person or two representing regional businesses. However, they rarely lead to widespread institutional implementation. Many of the tight relationships that do exist between colleges and employers occur in healthcare areas where certifications or licenses require a legal agreement.
Fuller and Raman’s work suggests that the transactional model must be replaced with a new, aggressive form of student-centered workforce development in which community colleges continually validate their programs with their private sector partners and promote the skills of their students to them. This model would emphasize more in-depth knowledge of employer partners, include a work-based learning experience, and require a better understanding of actual career pathways, including the cultural norms associated with employment in various sectors. Moreover, this model would focus the college on advocating for its students, particularly low-income students of color, to employers. It would make equity an intentional goal, a central aspect of all workforce programs instead of a nice-to-have add-on.
A student-centered approach would remain empathic to employers but not timid in advocating for community college programs and students. It would include discussions with companies over initial wages, racial bias, internal career pathways, and other issues rarely raised by the colleges and traditionally left to industry. In order for a college to become an advocate for its students and a key source of training, education, and knowledge for companies, a much more intensive relationship with employers needs to be established. Only then will colleges be able to realize their goal of creating opportunities for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and students who have no experience with postsecondary education.
This approach will require the active participation of the senior leadership of community colleges. Employers, especially huge ones, expect to have a connection with a partner institution at the highest level. Transitioning to student-centered workforce development will transform programs of study, the faculty, and perhaps the mission of these workforce units. It will align them with other efforts to establish community colleges as institutions of opportunity for those who are too often neglected by postsecondary education.