Reset Community Colleges and Employers
By Carl Smith
Are community colleges prepared to train the workers a technology-based economy requires? Joseph Fuller of Harvard Business School talks about findings from a multiyear research project that shows they have far to go.
The partnership between employers and community colleges falls short of what is needed to meet an urgent shortage of skilled workers, according to a new report from the Project on Managing the Future of Work at Harvard Business School (HBS) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
Employers, including technology companies, are increasingly willing to hire workers who lack four-year degrees. But good jobs still require skills, and those skills need to be learned somewhere. In response to the workforce disruption caused by the pandemic, state and local governments have increasingly turned to community colleges to help meet this need, funding workforce training programs and tuition.
The extent to which such efforts succeed is directly related to the way in which training programs match the needs of employers. While there are colleges where this correlation is in good shape, multiyear, multi-method research by HBS and AACC found that it is not the norm.
“The current state of collaboration is failing to meet today’s business needs and putting future competitiveness and prosperity at risk,” said professor Joseph Fuller, co-chair of the Project on Managing the Future of Work and co-author of the report, in announcing its release.
Fuller describes findings from the exhaustive look at the state of employer/educator partnerships, the first effort of its kind, as a “wake-up call.” More than four in ten employers agreed that community colleges did not have the “mandate or culture” to develop programs that match what they are looking for in employees.
On the other side of the coin, educators “struggle to get employers engaged” to discover the skills that their jobs require. While ninety-eight percent of community college leaders considered it “very important” for employers and community colleges to partner, only fifty-nine percent of employers shared this view.
In addition to a detailed look at the factors hindering collaboration, the report offers a framework and strategies for bringing cooperation between the two sectors to the level needed to meet workforce challenges. Professor Fuller knows both worlds well, having spent three decades in the private sector consulting corporate leaders and policymakers before coming to Harvard.
In a conversation with Governing, he offered perspective on the report and its significance.
Governing: Outside of the education sector, who in government should take note of your findings?
Joseph Fuller: There are a lot of implications for states, for state legislators, for governors, for cabinet-level secretaries of workforce development, education, and economics at the state level.
The first is that the systems performed very differently by state and they're configured quite differently by state. It is not unfair to say that they tend to fall along red/blue lines. The redder the state, the more likely the community college system is to have a sharp focus on CTE training. The bluer the state, the more likely the system is to focus on college matriculation.
States ought to be looking at each other for best practices about how to encourage businesses to engage with community colleges more directly and vice versa, particularly in those states that have a predisposition to a college matriculation model.
Seventy percent of students across the nation start community college on a general education path, but only eighteen percent go on to matriculate to a four-year college, and only about one-third of community college students graduate from their two-year program in less than three years.
Governing: What does that mean in regard to connecting students and careers?
Joseph Fuller: Policymakers have to be very sensitive to the fact that there's a window in which a person trying to better their economic prospects has got the time to add credentials before life starts to catch up to them. They ought to be concentrating on why that pipeline is so leaky.
How can we get more degree completions on time? How can we either align services we currently offer or offer new services that help surround the student to advance that goal? How do we remove barriers to community colleges innovating in their relationship with employers to get a clearer line of sight from this program to that good paying job?
Governing: Are there ways to address these questions?
Joseph Fuller: States should be equipping community colleges with data about what jobs are available. They ought to be collecting data about the economic impact of various degrees.
They ought to be posting data to learners about what programs actually lead to employment, and at what wages. They ought to be working hard to remove barriers at state departments of education to certifying new programs.
Community colleges tend to avoid launching new programs or require big upfront cost. States should be looking at ways to incentivize businesses to make in-kind contributions to community colleges. It could be the time of docents. It could be highly skilled workers in the company going to teach or be part of the teaching of skills. Perhaps some kind of credits or tax breaks to provide equipment, software access to programs.
Governing: Making these kinds of connections is good for colleges and employers. Why doesn’t it happen naturally?
Joseph Fuller: You can take any societal problem where there are immensely complicated asset bases, run by people with very specific definitions of victory and different metrics, and it's immensely hard to change them.
That's the story of community colleges: you've got a huge, complicated ecosystem with fifty different state community college systems. There’s a huge opportunity for disconnect, misunderstanding, not picking up on signals.
In the 1970s and '80s when community colleges really started to ramp up, businesses really needed those resources, but partnerships have not come together very effectively over time.
Governing: What’s the consequence of that?
Joseph Fuller: Businesses don't sit around and say, “Gosh, the system isn't creating anybody that can code—I guess we won't adopt technology.” They find alternative solutions.
Where did coding academies come from? Why didn't community colleges invent that? Because they don't have the resources, they don't have the budget, and they didn't have the insight. They didn't have the nimbleness.
As I say in the report, there are no heroes and there are no villains in this story. It’s just the way it evolved, so that now employers have lots of alternatives. Outsourcing and offshoring and other things have also happened because of a lack of skills.
Governing: Taking all this into account, how would you describe the current moment?
Joseph Fuller: We have to look at the system for what it is. What this system yields is some successes, both in terms of matriculating at a four-year college and some fabulous performers in the community college networks in terms of getting people good paying jobs for the future.
But the vast majority have lots of room for improvement. And realizing that potential is going to require not only willingness to change and reform—with lots of help and influence from their state capitals and the bureaucracy and the state legislators—but we also have to get employers motivated to be an integral part of the solution.
Governing: What are some examples in the “fabulous performer” category?
Joseph Fuller: In Indiana, through Ivy Tech community colleges, successive governors of been relentless about working with employers to understand how they can get the system to work better. Successive governors of Ohio have done that. Governor Hickenlooper, leading to Governor Polis in Colorado. Lots of innovation there.
You notice that I’ve mentioned a red, a purple, and a blue state. This is completely independent of politics. It's just good support for enhancing the prospects of more learners to end up economically independent and with some security for the future. Who's against that?
Governing: Do you expect community colleges to see more competition from private-sector programs offering job training, more coding schools, or similar programs?
Joseph Fuller: It's going to get worse—and it's going to get worse in a way that I'm going to argue is probably much more part of the solution than the problem.
We have a growing sector of highly effective online learning. You have institutions like 2U and Coursera that are putting more and more content out there. edX, which is the Harvard-affiliated platform, had a huge spike in enrollments during COVID-19. We have last-mile programs that take people without a college degree and train them to be specifically credentialed in areas that companies are seeking.
There’s a big HR-oriented SaaS [software as a service] platform called Workday. There's a big shortage of people who are certified in Workday. Once again, it's not community colleges filling that void.
We're getting a lot of dynamism on the edge.
Governing: Where does that leave community colleges?
Joseph Fuller: Big institutions get focused on the way they currently define their mission and the customers they currently serve, and they leave lots of underserved populations. People recognize that opportunity of those underserved populations, start building solutions for them, and all of a sudden they can overtake institutions.
We are well into that with higher ed. I don't want to leave the impression at all that I'm saying, “Those silly head-in-the-clouds educators, all they care about is teaching young people.” The people in the community college system are some of the most dedicated, passionate, laudable people. They’re doing the Lord's work, but they're doing it in a way that isn't sufficiently responsive, and that lack of responsiveness is in part linked with the fact that they don't have a good partnership with the people who are making the market for jobs.
Governing: How can this lack of responsiveness be addressed?
Joseph Fuller: If you go to an exemplary community college like San Jacinto Community College in Houston, Texas, they are constantly looking at job postings in the area. They have committees with the big local employers in Houston. They ask what the employers need, how their kids are doing.
Another example is Monroe Community [College] in Rochester, New York. Rochester had this huge base of experienced workers from companies like Xerox and Kodak Shalom, that had greatly reduced local employment or gone out of business. Monroe looked at how it could help them become employable, and when Rochester became an outsourcing site for software and what's called performance marketing, workers got repurposed by going to Monroe and learning SEQUEL [Structured English Query Language] or Ruby on Rails [a web application framework], or whatever else.
You have schools that have focused on employers and that's created a virtuous cycle because the employers have started building their strategy for sourcing talent around the community. If you go to Wake Tech in North Carolina, there's a new life science building to train laboratory technicians and similar types of workers. It’s called the Lilly Science and Technology Center because Eli Lilly is a big sponsor.
Governing: Are there other avenues for support that could help match postsecondary programs to employer needs?
Joseph Fuller: The big whale is the Higher Education Act (HEA). Title IV of the Higher Education Act stipulates who can get loans, what you can use the loans for, where you can use them. It defines the programs that it will recognize as those that can be funded using a loan or a grant.
Title IV is the big pool of liquidity to pay for education in the United States, and it's completely archaic. It needs to be rewritten, but the four-year higher education community is hugely resistant to this.
Governing: Any final thoughts?
Joseph Fuller: The system does work for a material percentage of people; it’s not that the whole system is bankrupt.
But for thirty years it's been creating the same outcome. If you want a different outcome, you can’t ignore that every cohort going through the system now has a disproportionate number of people who aren't on a pathway to have careers that will sustain household formation.
There are a large number of business models in the United States that hinge on the availability of lower-skilled workers because there’s a huge supply of them. Until we start thinking about creating more people who are capable of being more productive, rather than the employers who offer crummy jobs, we are asking the wrong questions.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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