How To Partner With Schools To Close The Skills Gap

There’s no procedures manual for building public-private partnerships, but the learning that comes with success and failure illuminates the way forward. One CEO shares her experience.

Building partnerships of any kind can be challenging and labor intensive. Employer-educator partnerships are no exception. Here’s how we approached it.

Early in my tenure as CEO, I wanted to align Guardian’s philanthropic work more closely with the needs of both our business and our communities. We wanted to help people become more financially independent, and we knew that community colleges would become an important investment. Our thought was to place volunteers from Guardian in the classroom to offer real-world life lessons on money management, but we were unsure how to approach it. Fortunately, I met Kate Bolduc, an executive who had recently left Travelers Insurance to focus on community-based projects, including postsecondary education. She had built a program while at Travelers that focused on teaching personal money management. Not only did it help the students become financially mindful, but it also taught them how to become employees of a financial services company. More broadly, it helped students in two-year community colleges how to go on to graduate from four-year institutions. Many of them went on to work full time for Travelers.

Kate read our initial plans, loved the concept, but identified one problem: “This will not work because that’s not the way community college systems work.” She was not shy about giving us guidance. Each community college is independent and different from the rest. They don’t run like a corporation, and the students you want to reach are not likely to take the courses you want to offer unless they are for-credit, rather than noncredit, optional courses. We initially thought we’d work in community colleges across the country. Kate warned that if we went broad—say, 200 colleges— rather than deep—perhaps 20—we risked not having a sustainable supply of volunteers and instructors. She advised that we build strong relationships with the local leaders—presidents, deans, career services—if we wanted to see the partnership grow.

Kate and Tracy Rich worked together to design and build a pilot program with a community college in the northeast region. There was a lot of excitement, but they came back from the first meeting dejected. The president of the college had been very welcoming, but the academic dean, who controls the coursework and enrollment, was suspicious of working with a corporation and would have none of it. The lack of strong leadership doomed that particular attempt. But we didn’t give up. We met with the president of another community college, and his first question was about what we had done wrong to compel us to donate    to a community college. The educator was used to companies attempting to do something philanthropic in order to boost their reputation. That was not our objective, though we wanted the community to see us as caring and engaged.

“You know what?” Tracy told him. “You’re not the first person to think that. But you’re the first person to say it directly. No, we actually want to help.”

From then on our relationship began to deepen. We learned about the students. They are a little older than your average university student. They are working one, if not two jobs. Many lack health insurance. They are unlikely to have a bank account. They might have a laptop but no Wi-Fi at home. Transportation is a challenge. They live paycheck to paycheck. Many are immigrants who are learning English. These are students who are working hard. The New York Times reported in October 2019 that children of low-income immigrant fathers have done better over the decades than children of U.S.-born fathers, in part because their parents invest more in education. All children deserve our investment, and all children have enormous potential.

Another leader who taught us a lot was Dr. Regina Stanback Stroud, who today is chancellor of the Peralta Community College District in Oakland, California, and, prior to that, was president of Skyline. Her work has been primarily in California, but she has had a national impact. She was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans to make recommendations on strategies and policies to improve the financial well-being of young people.

Like Kate Bolduc, Regina advised us to get leadership on board and to tap the creativity of the faculty. But she also advocates “boots on the ground” inside and outside the classroom. Throughout her illustrious career in education, she has forged partnerships with Genentech, Cisco, Intel, National Semiconductor, and others. She has succeeded with a guiding philosophy that workforce development and community education go hand in hand. “It is the means through which people are able to affect their own individual economic sustainability, and then in turn, affect the economic sustainability of the household. Then you affect the economic sustainability of an entire neighborhood, an entire community.”

Over the years she and her staff have gone into small and large businesses to study the core skills that students need in order to land jobs at those companies and be successful. She hired people from those companies to serve as adjunct staff to develop curriculum and teach and to offer internships. She also brought in organized labor and community-based organizations to ensure that nontraditional students, those who might fear entering a college setting, felt welcomed. In other words, she left nothing to chance.

The attacks of 9/11 were a wake-up call for Stroud and her workforce development team. United Airlines was a major employer in the Bay Area, and with planes grounded—and demand for flights dwindling—6,000 workers in the region would be affected. Her community college went to work inventorying the skills that would be in demand. Biotech remains a large employer in the state, and so she worked with Genentech and other employers to help workers train to work in labs and operations. They focused on automotive technology, health care, and early childhood education jobs.

There’s no procedures manual for building public-private partnerships, but the learning that comes with success and failure illuminates the way forward. Guardian now works with fourteen community colleges in the regions where we operate. We began by focusing on financial literacy, but as we saw increasing pressure on the labor market, we shifted to partnerships that would help advance workforce development through community colleges.

Community colleges and businesses have a shared interest in preparing students and existing workers to be more successful in their careers. Guardian has provided grants on two occasions to the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) to study partnerships leading to a future-ready work- force and to understand the college-work balancing act for students. Nearly 70 percent of students work while enrolled in two-year community college programs, and the overwhelming majority of their financial need is not being met. But funding is not the only challenge to persistence; so are time and academic performance. Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian told Fortune’s Alan Murray that his company founded RiseHY to help bring out-of-school, out-of-work young people into the Hyatt workforce. The company needs a larger and more diverse pipeline of employees, but a common challenge has been ensuring that these workers get to work on time. They struggle because of complicated living arrangements and uneven access to transportation.

ACCT recommends a set of academic and non-academic student support to help overcome these challenges, including work-based learning, flexible scheduling, prior learning assess-ments, and child care.

As drivers of local workforces, community colleges must work closely with area businesses to properly equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills. Collaboration can include identifying:

(a) the capabilities of students and existing employees

(b) current job and career availability and necessary skills; and

(c) how to align individuals’ skills and business needs through academic programs and work-based learning opportunities.

Experiential learning is great for students and great for com- panies. But because experiential learning is the exception, not the rule, many of those potential benefits are not yet being realized.

Skills learned by doing—whether through an apprenticeship, an internship, a work-study position or any similar experiential learning program—are grounded in real-world needs. These programs help students and schools focus on what’s needed in today’s as well as tomorrow’s workplace.

And businesses can help. Business leaders have valuable insights about the skills that will be important down the road. They can help to give students the training, teachers the guidance and school systems the support needed to ensure that all students have the chance to learn real-world skills that will serve them throughout their careers.

A number of education programs powered by experiential learning already exist. These programs have shown us how to bring the workplace into the classroom, and by and large, they’ve been enormously successful.

By examining, imitating, and scaling these programs, we can build a system of experiential learning that will enable more students to lay a strong foundation for their future and for ours. 

Excerpted from Hire Purpose by Copyright (c) 2020 Deanna Mulligan. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.