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Dive Brief:

  • The relationship between community colleges and employers isn’t adequate to feed today’s workforce, especially when it comes to middle-skill jobs, according to a report released Monday that calls on both education and business leaders to revamp their practices.
  • Just 10% of community college leaders said employers would guarantee jobs to students who completed programs, according to the report from Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work and the American Association of Community Colleges. Some 47% of employers said hiring from the open market is more cost effective than spending on training new workers.
  • The report calls for “rebooting the system” so that training is aligned with industry needs, employers hire community college graduates, and key decisions are based on the latest data and trends.

Dive Insight:

Higher education and employers alike are grappling with the best ways to improve connections between education and the workforce. It’s a key component of higher education’s value proposition for students — research indicates students value education focused on career training over the traditional liberal arts.

Yet surveyors have found young adults with degrees often feel their education failed to prepare them for the workforce.

A number of overlapping solutions have been pursued to fix this gulf. Among them are corporate education benefits for workers, skills-based learning, and short-term programs including a dizzying number of credentials.

Ideally, community colleges would train students to fill current middle-skill positions, which Monday’s report defines as jobs requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. But it suggests the system isn’t working for graduates.

“Too often armed with outdated credentials and burdened with student debt, these graduates discover that they lack the technical and foundational skills needed to secure positions to which they had aspired,” it says.

It also indicates the chasm between employers and community colleges is widening, not shrinking.

“Increasingly, the ecosystem is in imbalance due to the growing gulf between those who teach and those who hire,” it says. “Both educators and employers are failing to meet the challenge of the moment: how to create a steady pipeline of workers required to keep the U.S. economy competitive and prospering.”

The report is based on interviews with business and community college leaders across the country, as well as a survey on the partnership between the two. A survey of business leaders collected 800 responses from November to December 2020. A survey of American Association of Community College members gathered 347 responses from November 2020 to April 2021.

Findings support the idea of a gap between the two sides:

  • Only one in four employers said they were transparent about communicating hiring needs to educators.
  • More than half of business leaders couldn’t say they knew which skills they were seeking in newly hired employees.
  • Only 28% of employers gave themselves an A grade on collaborating with community colleges. Even fewer educators said the same — 93% gave employers a B or lower.
  • Just 62% of employers agreed that community colleges produce employees ready for work and needed by their companies. Eight in 10 educators said their colleges produce graduates ready for work and needed by employers.

“The current state of collaboration is failing to meet today’s business needs and putting future competitiveness and prosperity at risk,” Joe Fuller, co-chair of the Project on Managing the Future of Work, said in a statement.

The report recommends community colleges and employers partner in a way that includes pursuing strategies to co-create curriculum, using real-world training and making program timelines align with employers’ needs. It suggests building relationships by dedicating staff time for partnerships, creating recruiting commitments and establishing processes for hiring community college graduates.

And the partners should collect data on local supply and demand for talent so that they can make informed decisions, it says.