It’s amazing to me how many non-profit organizations there are in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere that are specifically related to workforce development and corporate training . You can see a partial list here:
The Work of Corporate Voices for Working Families
They all have similar mandates and goals, mostly concerned with helping people obtain the skills they need to find decent employment. It’s difficult to quantify how well these organizations fulfill their mission statements. While I am by no means an expert on what these organizations are all about, I can say that one non-profit organization that I happen to know through a previous business relationship has been doing some very interesting and important work concerning the development of community college and corporation partnerships and collaborations. I’m referring to Corporate Voices for Working Families (CVWF). In particular, their Learn & Earn initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Postsecondary Success Strategy, has been helping to facilitate meaningful collaborations between community colleges and companies.
As noted on the CVWF website, the Learn & Earn initiative “seeks to identify, promote and encourage innovative partnerships between employers, community colleges and higher education institutions to help today’s ‘working learners’—often low-income young adults—complete their education while working.”
Recently, CVWF’s Senior Director, Workforce Readiness, Peg Walton and I had a great conversation about community colleges and employers. Peg has a pretty good view of the landscape because she is basically a Learn & Earn initiative intermediary who has been working very hard at getting community colleges and corporations to understand each other more effectively in order to ultimately produce a better, more engaged and productive American workforce. For a little more than two years, Peg has been conducting high-level talks with, and listening very closely to, community college and corporate professionals via presentations at conferences and at a variety of meetings throughout the country. She has also been writing and publishing a good number of Learn & Earn case studies that highlight “progressive Learn and Earn talent development models.”
“So, what have you learned from all this so far?” I asked Peg.
Culture of Academia and Culture of Business
“One of the key things we have learned – and this is not rocket science or anything new – is that we are dealing with two completely different cultures,” she said. To explain further, she noted that even though community colleges have workforce and economic development missions, in general, many of them still work within their own goals, priorities, structures, and bureaucracies of academia. On the other side are companies that have a different cultural bent that is very focused on their own goals and priorities and often move quickly in order to produce positive results to their bottom line.
Getting two different cultures to have a substantive and meaningful dialogue is not an easy thing to do. Getting them to actually accomplish something significant is even more difficult. Here’s my theory on this : For more than two decades I have provided writing services to both higher education clients and corporate clients, giving me a first-hand view of these two different cultures, and both have their pluses and minuses, so to speak. I am going to generalize here (a dangerous thing to do). For one, academic leaders are more polite and less aggressive than non-academic business leaders. This, in turn, slows down progress at the Academy, while corporate personnel tend to get things down quicker because they will hold each other more accountable and are more likely to dispense with politeness and call someone out if he is not doing his job. Secondly, both cultures are guilty of falling into meeting creep where everyone attends multiple meetings on a frequent basis, talks too much and ultimately never get anything done efficiently. I think academics, however, are guiltier of this than the corporate folks. I can go on, but I don’t want to get into too much trouble here. I would really love to see some opinions on this in the comments section.
Peg, of course, put all this into a much kinder and positive perspective. “If you have seen one community college, you have seen one community college,” she said, jokingly referring to a quote she likes to repeat now and then. “Community colleges are very individualistic, and they should be because they service individual regions that are different from everyone else’s regions. It would be crazy to offer a ship-building program in Kansas, but you do have to be training and educating in what your local labor market demands. You can’t do that without holding hands with your local employers.”
On the employer side, Peg explained how an intermediary like CVWF, which has deep connections with its corporate membership, can help get things moving in a positive direction by showing how community colleges do provide viable options for corporate training needs. Many CEOs think that a minimum of a four-year degree is a mandatory requirement for new job candidates. “We help them understand that not everybody needs a bachelor’s degree, but they do need some kind of postsecondary education or training with a credential that signifies their competencies,” Peg said.
That’s where Learn & Earn comes into play. In short, by supporting employees with such things as tuition assistance, flexible scheduling, and support of prior learning assessment in order for them to obtain a credential or associate degree, the company is showing its commitment to continuous talent development. “You help to create an engaged employee, and we know that by doing that you have a more productive employee,” Peg said.
What’s the Solution?
In the end it’s a win/win/win solution for the employee, employer and the community college. All sides, however, need to understand how to be much more cognizant of what’s really needed to produce meaningful Learn & Earn collaborations, be willing to change old and lacking-in-frequency communications, and basically start learning more about each other’s specific challenges and needs. No surprise here, right?
According to 2012 figures from the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,132 community colleges in the U.S. Of these, how many are doing outstanding work in the workforce development and corporate training arena through highly effective collaborations with their local employers? The answer is “not nearly enough.”
In Part II of this post, there is more about my conversation with Peg and some solutions that have come to the forefront recently through CVWF’s work in the field.