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When Educators and Employers Work Together, Students Succeed

Joseph Fuller and Manjari Raman
Article Date
November 22, 2023

For going on a decade and a half, much has been made of the chronic shortage of workers. Month after month, US employers post millions of jobs while millions of Americans are actively seeking them—and yet those positions remain unfilled. The situation appears only to be getting worse: Workers entering the workforce find that they are unemployable, educators worry that their students lack the technical and foundational skills that employers seek, and companies struggle to deliver goods and services to customers in the absence of workforce-ready talent.

This vicious cycle remains especially true of middle-skills workers: those with less than a four-year college education but more than a high school diploma. Workers who don’t have a four-year college degree or higher constitute more than 62 percent of US workers over the age of 25. They work in critical occupations across virtually every industry and are the life force that keeps America’s economic engine humming.

So why is fixing the middle-skills gap so hard?

Recently, in depth and for the first time, we investigated this problem from the employer perspective. As part of our research, we partnered with the American Association of Community Colleges and surveyed presidents, deans, or provosts at 347 community colleges across the country. In parallel, we surveyed 800 business leaders. These surveys made clear to us that one factor has played a powerful role worsening the middle-skills gap: inadequate collaboration between employers and educators. In this article we’ll sum up our findings, which we published last year in a report titled “The Partnership Imperative,” and we’ll offer some suggestions for doing better.

What’s gone wrong

In our research, we identified three main problems that are contributing to the middle-skills gap:

1. The struggle to produce workforce-ready graduates

Eighty-four percent of the business leaders we interviewed told us that they hired from community colleges, but many seemed to feel that community colleges were not producing graduates with the right kinds of skills for today’s needs. Only 26 percent strongly agreed, and 36 percent agreed, that their local community college was producing work-ready employees. The challenge of closing the middle-skills gap in America is thus not just a problem of matching supply and demand. It’s also an issue of quality and the work-readiness of the students coming out of the community-college system.

“The challenge of closing the middle-skills gap in America is not just a problem of matching supply and demand. It’s also an issue of quality and the work-readiness of the students coming out of the community-college system.”

Faculty at community colleges are generally under-resourced and over-burdened, and they lack direct access to employers’ workplaces or relationships with their opposite numbers from the private sector. Not only that, but their institutions also can’t afford to buy the latest technology and software licenses that power employers’ processes. Students without access to such resources are simply not ready to become productive in the workplaces that their course of study is intended to equip them for. Just as important, the dialogue between employers and educators as to how to improve the system’s performance is insufficiently frequent or candid.

2. An inadequate playbook for collaboration

For several decades now, the pace of change in technology has outstripped the ability of educators to institute effective curricular change on their own—a trend that holds true across occupations and industries.

To synchronize this change so that it meets rapidly evolving needs in the workplace, employers and community colleges need to work in tandem. The community-college leaders we surveyed recognized this: 98 percent told us that they’ll need to partner with employers if they want to create programs that yield work-ready graduates. Business leaders, on the other hand, were significantly more ambivalent; only 59 percent deemed such partnerships very important, and 30 percent considered them only somewhat important. Perhaps not surprisingly, given those numbers, only 16 percent of community-college leaders described themselves as very satisfied with how employers collaborated with them, and only 28 percent of employers described themselves as very satisfied with collaboration efforts.

One reason for tepid collaboration is that there is no playbook for such partnerships. While much ink has been spilled on framing this problem, in our research we have found that no clear understanding exists of what such a partnership would actually look like. Everyone accepts that when it comes to talent, educators and employers need to work together to better synchronize the quality and quantity of middle-skills talent—but they have developed no shared action plan for making it happen.

In most cases, this means that community colleges and local employers have drifted to low levels of equilibrium in their partnerships, settling for superficial, weak relationships with no accountability and little impact. Most community colleges, for example, pride themselves on their business advisory groups—but many of their business partners are small businesses or retired business leaders, and the advisory services are ad-hoc and transactional.

3. Partnerships trapped in low expectations

Our survey revealed that neither educators nor employers are investing the time and effort necessary to make a partnership work and improve continuously. Most community-college leaders felt that they were doing what they could to improve the situation, but they also expressed doubts about whether what they were doing was actually producing better outcomes—most notably, in the form of more work-ready students. Employers, for their part, admitted to doing far less to foster partnerships with local educators and to applying less effort in doing so.

“Our survey revealed that neither educators nor employers are investing the time and effort necessary to make a partnership work and improve continuously.”

In our research across the country, we found only a handful of cases in which students were graduating in decent numbers from programs to start jobs in their field of study that paid household-sustaining wages with local employers. When we studied these cases, we found an underlying pattern. Unerringly, one or more local employers were deeply engaged across a plethora of actions: influencing the curriculum, providing apprenticeships, tracking data, synchronizing the hiring calendar with the teaching calendar, training faculty members, and constantly providing access to the latest technology. Whether it was Siemens’ partnership with Piedmont Community College, in North Carolina; or Disney’s collaboration with Valencia College, in Orlando, Florida; or the truck manufacturer PACCAR’s association with East Mississippi Community College’s Golden Triangle campus, the programs that offered a glimmer of hope for closing the skills gap relied on the sustained commitment of business leaders, often in senior positions, to work directly with community colleges to drive results.

It’s worth restating that all of the successful partnerships we have studied were initiated and led by employers. It stands to reason that this would be the case. Employers know the emerging requirements of work and, more important, control the most valuable currency in the labor market—jobs. During the past two decades, for example, as the nature of work has evolved so rapidly, community colleges simply haven’t been able to update their curricula at a fast enough pace to give their students the skills needed by cutting-edge companies.

A playbook for partnership

We can do better. America’s business leaders need to recognize that just as they use best practices to manage suppliers, develop new products, and allocate resources, they now need to develop a specific, data-driven approach for partnering with community colleges, their largest potential source of talent.

“Last year, in ‘The Partnership Imperative,’ we put forth a set of more than 40 best practices that employers and educators can use to develop a close collaboration.”

We know quite well what the actions are that have the most impact in closing the middle-skills gap. For educators, these include prioritizing job-placement rates over graduation rates as an outcome metric, committing to hiring targets for graduates, and creating customized programs that meet employers’ emerging needs. For employers, these include supporting efforts to offer English language courses to students who speak other languages, donating or leasing equipment or license software to community colleges, and committing to guaranteed work-based learning opportunities or job offers for graduates of approved programs. Unfortunately, neither group is investing time or effort in these actions.

Last year, in “The Partnership Imperative,” we put forth a set of more than 40 best practices that employers and educators can use to develop a close collaboration. As part of that effort, we identified three main goals and laid out strategies for achieving each.

1. Partner with each other to offer training and education that is aligned with industry needs.

Strategies: Cocreate and regularly update college curriculums so that they reflect relevant technical and foundational skills based on industry needs. Codesign programs that fit with students’ lives and industry hiring cycles. Incorporate classroom experiences that simulate real-world settings and scenarios.

2. Establish relationships with each other that result in the recruitment and hiring of students and graduates.

Strategies: Dedicate staff time to managing employer-college relationships. Create processes for hiring community-college students and graduates. Develop commitments for hiring and recruitment.

3. Make supply-and-demand decisions that are informed by the latest data and trends.

Strategies: Collect and share data on the local supply of talent. Collect and share data on the local demand for talent. Build mechanisms to jointly monitor and improve the supply-and-demand for talent.

If these goals and strategies and practices sound simple and rooted in common sense, that’s because they are. Solving America’s chronic skills gap doesn’t have to be as hard, expensive, or complicated as it seems to be. It will just require a mutually supportive and focused emphasis on collaboration—an effort that in many ways is led by business. Companies that rely on middle-skills workers have the most at stake in resolving the shortage of workforce-ready workers, and by investing in improving the performance of community colleges, they can strengthen their talent supply chain and ensure their ongoing competitiveness. In doing so, they can ensure better outcomes not only for themselves, but also for community colleges and all aspiring workers.

The bottom line is this: We know how to fix the broken employer-educator ecosystem. It’s now time to get serious about doing it.

This article was originally published by HBR.