Top Tip: Communicate
The most important step is communication. Success can only emerge from high-quality, frequent communication, which leads to trusting relationships between partners. By forging effective channels of communication and collaboration, businesses and community colleges can develop tailored and adaptable solutions that work.
Getting a Partnership Started
“How do you get started? I think it’s frustrating on both ends.”
1. Make the connection and designate a point of contact.
Making the first move can be difficlit. Many companies don’t see their role as the catalyst, nor do most community colleges. But someone has to make the first call.
One easy step for businesses is to survey their own employees to find out if they have any relationships with a local community college. Does anyone already serve on an advisory board? Did someone attend the community college and still has ties?
Both potential partners can look at what’s already working. Often there are usefli examples of cooperation or collaboration in your community, region or industry that businesses and community colleges can learn from and build on.
If there aren’t established connections, sometimes it’s best to start at the top, with the president of the community college or local business executive, but not always. For businesses and community colleges, communications structures will differ and decision-makers can vary based on size. For example, many community colleges have different structures—some have industry coordinators designated to work on partnerships, others lack these resources.
Personalities matter. Remember, “It’s the person, not the role” who will listen and take action.
Often the first conversation can be about interest, and the second conversation can begin to address other key issues such as the capacity of the college, resources needed to support the partnership, etc.
It’s important for businesses and community colleges to have clear lines of responsibility for the partnerships. Decide: Who is responsible for day-to-day communication? Who is designated as the point of contact for each partner?
2. Understand each other’s needs and capabilities.
Businesses can make their training needs clear up front through open and ongoing communication. This communication may occur by participating on advisory boards that meet fairly frequently, and establishing relationships with key community college staff.
Businesses can work closely with community colleges to inform the school of industry-recognized credentials that are relevant to businesses and will benefit individuals as they seek employment and career advancement.
Businesses can share knowledge of the industry in an ongoing way by providing community colleges with adjunct faculty or training the existing faculty.
Small, medium and large businesses all can benefit from community college partnerships. What often changes with size is the structure of partnerships. Sometimes it is difficult for community colleges to respond to training needs for only a few workers. That’s why it can be more effective if small businesses aggregate their hiring needs and collaborating to achieve the strongest results. Some companies believe they are too small to request customized training from community colleges individually, but can do so as part of a group or association.
3. Set goals for both the business and the community college.
Both the community college and business must make sure their goals align before entering into a partnership. There must be a recognized need on both sides that the partnership will add value.
Businesses need to decide what type of training they are looking to provide: is it to fill an immediate hiring need, to provide general skills training or to improve the skills of incumbent workers?
Some businesses may not have direct hiring goals. At Sandvik Coromant, a tooling company, they are focused on promoting training programs for the company’s end users – manufacturing companies – to ensure a continued market for their products by promoting training for people who they hope are going to use their products.
Businesses should also determine other goals, such as whether they are looking to diversify their workforce by attracting individuals who have been underrepresented in the skilled trades, such as military veterans, women or minorities. For example, Grainger and PG&E have tailored part of their partnership programs specifically for military veterans, with Grainger offering half of all scholarships annually to military veterans.
Community colleges must make sure that the partnership is meeting its goals as well. For instance, is the college looking to build more robust training in one industry area? Is it focused on simulating on-the-job experiences or classroom instruction?
The key to a successful partnership is having both a broad enough vision to see where the partnership opportunities might be and a willingness to own the process of building the relationship. Organizational buy-in is therefore critical—both from the business and the community college. For this buy-in, top level interaction (the college president or business CEO) can be helpful, but is not always needed.
4. Agree on how what resources will be used and how long you’re willing to make a commitment.
Business and community college leaders who formed successful partnerships said it over and over: in order for partnerships to work, they need to be sustained, often with more long-term, strategic and systemic collaboration and investment.
Example: Gateway Technical College asks all business partners to commit to 5 years, with the knowledge that if the college hasn’t demonstrated value in 5 years the company can walk away. GE looks for a 3 to 5 year horizon for their partnerships with community colleges.
While it can seem like an unnecessary detail, businesses and community colleges should come to a consensus at the beginning of their relationship about the length of the commitment, knowing that a more sustained commitment can often lead to a more successful outcome.
Partnerships vary on the amount of resources required to begin and sustain the work. Some partnerships don’t require a significant financial commitment. Others are a collaborative relationship—funded by a combination of business, government and other resources.
Businesses should look at their funding availability and have an honest conversation with the community college about the resources they are able to expend, which will help determine the scope and capacity of the partnership program.
5. Bring in additional partners to help reach the goals (if needed).
Many partnerships don’t just involve two parties—they also use outside entities to help achieve desired goals. In addition to the potential entities below, other stakeholders in the community may complement the partnership.
Potential additional partners can include:
Workforce Investment Boards WIBs can assist in screening processes, initial interviews and providing information about effective training partners. WIBs also can assist in case management, often tracking workers even after they are placed in jobs, enabling businesses to keep their own metrics on hiring up-to-date.
Other businessesEffective approaches can range from allowing other businesses in the same region and/or industry to meet program participants to forming a full-scale industry consortium.
Industry associationsIndustry associations, such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), can gather and speak for the needs of its employer members. With partnerships, they can be useful in defining skills and competencies and determining which credentials and certifications are valued throughout the industry.
GovernmentsAt the federal, state and local level, government programs targeting worker training can provide needed programmatic and resource capacity. While government resources are becoming scarcer, some successful partnerships have a government funding component, or use local government to promote the partnership regionally.
Community-based organizationsSometimes community-based organizations can play an intermediary role, helping the “key players” – the businesses and community colleges – work together and determine how best to connect to potential local talent.
Labor unionsSome partnerships involve local labor unions as key partners. For example, in a program developed by NextEra Energy in Florida, trainees complete classroom instruction and on-the-job training to satisfy IBEW requirements for Journeyman status, and the local IBEW provides apprentice instructors.
FoundationsMany regional and national foundations include workforce development among their funding priorities, and view authentic partnerships between employers and colleges and an attractive investment. For more information about private and corporate foundations, visit The Foundation Center’s website.
Many partnerships have specific testing requirements for participants.
Example: Right Skills Now requires students to earn the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) before entering the program. Individuals who do not achieve desired scores on the tests for the NCRC can target their training to only the areas in which their scores were not high enough.
Some programs also require students to earn a specific GPA or pass a drug test.
Keeping a Partnership Going
“It’s about making sure the people at the table will stay committed and engaged.”
7. Determine the resources needed to sustain the partnership in the long-term.
Resources – including staffing and funding levels – are key to sustaining and growing a partnership once it’s started.
The amount of staffing resources dedicated by the business and the community college may depend on the size of the organization and the scope of the partnership effort. Businesses should decide if they want staff resources “on-the-ground” or in the office, and how the staff time can be most effectively used to support the partnership goals.
For instance, will the business have staff members focused on the partnership as a fulltime job? Or will it be something done part-time or as part of other duties? While some companies have full teams dedicated to partnerships, others see it as a function of a larger set of duties around workforce development.
Often partnerships have initial funding or committed support, but do not have a plan for sustaining the partnerships. For instance, businesses and community colleges would need to decide how a partnership initially supported with grant funds will continue once the funding ends. Are the businesses and community colleges willing to invest financial resources to sustain the partnerships?
8. Know and show the value within your company and institution.
Once these partnership programs are created, it is up to both the business and the community college to ensure the value of the program is understood and articulated internally and integrated into things such as hiring processes or community college recruitment.
Businesses should send clear signals to human resources and other hiring managers or recruiters on what it means for a potential employee to participate in that program.
As one business leader says, “Communications should flow down into the field to the people who make those hiring decisions...The program has to mean something to the people in the business who are doing the hiring.” Understanding how the program will be integrated into the company’s hiring process is essential to recognize the benefits that come from such a ready-made pipeline of workers.
The community college should also decide how to articulate the value of the partnership. This can include featuring the partnership program for future students or building a training facility on campus that becomes a flagship location in the college.
9. Grow the partnership to other company locations.
Businesses looking to expand successful partnership programs can take a standardized or localized approach.
Standardized partnerships replicate partnership aspects across partnership sites.
Example: Grainger’s Tools for Tomorrow® program offers scholarships across the country to community college students in their final year preparing for careers in the industrial trades
Example: Georgia-Pacific is working to transport full training programs to company facilities in other geographic locations. The programs will be adapted to respond to regional economies. Regional managers meet 3 times a year and share successes and failures to help “transport success.”
Localized partnerships can take a more of what one business leader called a “site-to-school” approach, with large companies having distinct local or regional efforts to best respond to the individualized needs of the regional economy or capacities at local community colleges.
Example: Sandvik Coromant has hundreds of partnerships, but has made a decision to localize their training programs to best meet the local community college need.
10. Set measures to inform program success and share your story.
Part of sustaining a partnership is setting and adjusting measures, tracking and telling the story of the effort’s success.
One way to gauge success is through credentialing or certification, especially when multiple businesses or an industry sign off on a commitment to recognize the value of a created certificate.
Example: Snap-on began offering curriculum-based product certifications to technical college students in 2006, and since then has provided more than 7,00 students with about 10,000 industry-recognized Snap-on certifications. This national program reaches more than 100 community colleges that offer these industry-recognized Snap-on certifications to students, and in some cases, to the incumbent workforce. By offering third party, stackable and transferable credentials, the certifications can help their students become more marketable, and show the success of Snap-on’s partnerships.
Another is the number of workers hired and placed in jobs, which allows businesses to know the training they are a part of is working. Hiring success can depend on getting the integration process right, so that the value of the trainees is understood by the company. Partners can also ensure other local businesses get to see their program in action and meet the individuals being trained, to increase hiring overall.
Other measures of success, including whether individuals receive a promotion, employee retention, or even pass rates on pre-employment tests, can help partners gauge success. Metrics can provide concrete evidence to businesses and community colleges that the partnerships are working, while also highlighting opportunities for program improvement.