We’ve established that local and regional employers should be engaged in your career pathways program, but which ones, when, and how will you engage them? If you’ve already done your homework by gathering labor market information to identify workforce opportunities for your students, then it’s time to begin narrowing your conversation to specific employers in the sector(s) you’ve chosen for pathway development. If you’re still in the early stages of establishing career pathways programs at your institution, take a close look at the workforce and economic development needs of your community. Gather information from state and local workforce agencies, chambers of commerce, economic development entities and other potential partners such as university research centers that examine workforce trends. Get to know the needs of your county and neighboring counties now, and the projections for the next three to five years. The more you know; the better chance you stand of engaging the right partners and preparing your students for quality employment opportunities.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the Industry Engagement Process:
Inventory the community (local and regional), its industries, and workforce development opportunities and trends.
Determine the industry sector with the greatest workforce needs and the best opportunities to which to align career pathways programs.
Identify key stakeholders within the sector.
Convene business leaders (CEOs, plant managers, senior executives) of companies in the identified sector to engage them in a dialogue session to define and prioritize a workforce development framework to meet current and future sector needs.
Once priorities are identified, develop a career pathways sector-focused plan of action in collaboration with your new employer partners.
It’s very possible that you’ll identify multiple sectors with significant workforce needs during your research. However, starting with just a single sector represented by local employers offers the most manageable approach that will allow you to build a model that, once established, can be replicated for other sectors.
Step 4 in the list above requires focused time and effort to ensure the right people get to the table and the right questions are asked to “drill down” to the level of specificity you need to build a demand-driven curriculum. It’s important to invite the most senior leaders of companies in the sector. Individuals need a broad perspective not only of their company’s employment needs but of trends within the industry. Engage individuals at a high enough level in a company who can commit resources to supporting the career pathways partnership. Respect the time these local employers are investing in your effort and keep the meeting to just a couple of hours. Let them know you’ve assembled representatives from the sector to listen to their workforce needs and form a career pathways partnership that will benefit employers across the sector. The operative word in this sentence is listen. Once employers know you are serious about wanting to meet their workforce development needs, they will share the detailed information you need to know. Ask questions about:
specific occupational labor pool needs
technical and nontechnical (soft) skill gaps
projected industry changes
career pathways program structures and schedules
partnership opportunities, including work-based learning experiences
Here are a few examples of questions that might be asked at a convening of employers in the healthcare sector:
What are the top three challenges facing the region’s healthcare industry over the next five
What are the top five occupational areas in which the healthcare industry is facing the most severe employee shortages?
At entry level, what are the three greatest skill and/or employability weaknesses you see in your current skilled labor workforce?
Do you anticipate the region having a large enough pool of skilled and/or certified employee candidates from which to draw employees within the next 18 months?
In the next five years?
If you have varying answers by skilled area, (i.e. CNAs, phlebotomists), specify accordingly.
Regardless of the sectors that are engaged or the size of the region being surveyed, nearly every community across the country is facing similar issues. It’s likely you’ll hear from local employers that they are struggling with...
Lack of qualified workforce available in the labor pool
Poor work ethics and professionalism
Recruitment and retention in rural areas
Training and retention of supervisors
Recruitment and retention of trade technicians
Among your discussions with employers about hiring and training needs should be a conversation about the industry credentials they value. Their answers may surprise you, and there may not be consensus. Understanding — or at least familiarizing yourself with—the credentialing landscape will help. See the ACTE publication “What is a Credential?” in the Resources section of this module for further background. Ideally, we want our students earning credentials that have all three of these characteristics:
Industry recognized/valued — credentials that are either developed or endorsed by a nationally recognized industry association or organization and are sought or accepted by companies within the industry sector for purposes of hiring or recruitment.
Stackable —a credential that is part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications is considered stackable. Typically, stackable credentials help individuals move up a career ladder or along a career pathway to different and potentially higher-paying jobs.
Portable — Credentials that are recognized and accepted as verifying the qualifications of an individual in other settings—either in other geographic areas, at other educational institutions, or by other industries or employing companies are considered portable.
If you find yourself having difficulty convening employers from your chosen sector of focus, what can you do? Find a “champion” among local employers who can be the one to invite others from the sector to the meeting. Ask your local chamber of commerce director to co-host the meeting with you. Leverage other employer organizations or industry groups such as a regional manufacturers’ association. While you can interview employers in a one-on-one setting, or even via online survey, the level of engagement you’ll experience and the resulting networking of employers across the sector make an in-person convening more than worth the effort it takes to assemble the group.
The bottom line that will be the ultimate measure of your employment engagement efforts is that the partnership is able to produce:
Programs that match the economic development needs of your community
Graduates that possess the skills necessary to ensure a high-quality workforce
Once employers have identified what they need, build a sector-based partnership whose partners have a:
Willingness to adopt a common language
Willingness to commit to strategies that will benefit the community as a whole
Willingness to see the journey through
Employer contributions can be both broad and deep. Employer partners can help you develop:
Workplace relevant curriculum
Career awareness/exploration/development activities
Work-based learning experiences (job shadowing, plant tours, internships)
Programs that are industry responsive
Employers can also work with instructors to help translate workplace skills into learning objectives that can be taught in a career pathways context. They can provide opportunities for instructors to visit the workplace and engage with employees and workplace tasks. Employers can conduct mock interviews, discuss hiring expectations, and provide a broad range of in-kind support. But remember – partnerships are a two-way street. The supply side – education, must be responsive to the demand side – business, for the partnership to enjoy success, be sustained, and expand.
There are excellent examples of employer partnerships in your state, and across the country. Don’t be shy to reach out to others in similar roles to discuss issues of common interest and benefit from lessons learned. Take some time to read about the innovations of other North Carolina community colleges and review the partnership examples in the Resources section of this module.
While employer partnerships can be rewarding and successful, don’t assume your journey will be free of speed bumps. As with any partnership endeavor, there are challenges you can expect along the way. Doing your homework and anticipating some of the issues you may face when bringing two very different cultures – business and education – together will prepare you for the road ahead.
Potential challenges you may encounter:
Moving from discussion to partnership commitment
Finding the right people to make things happen
Employers and educators articulate their expectations and how they’ll measure success differently
Finding common ground and developing mutual respect
Understanding each other’s needs and “decoding” unfamiliar technology
Engaging the right combination of employers who can articulate skills and workplace competencies needed by entry-level employees
Keeping all partners engaged to maintain momentum
Be flexible in your approach, be open to new possibilities, and be willing to be a partner. The destination will be worth the investment in the journey.