The Impact of Industry and Community College Collaborations On Economic and Workforce Development

11/23/2014  |  Dr. Dennis L. McElhoe

In recent months, community colleges have experienced great notoriety due to various initiatives of the federal government such as the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act, the Healthcare and Education Reconciliation Act and the American Graduation Initiative, all of which are intended to assist with the re-tooling of the American workforce in an effort to make it competitive in the ever-evolving global economy. Based on the media coverage of these initiatives, someone who is unfamiliar with the role community colleges have played in the economic development of the nation could surmise that these two-year institutions of higher education have done little prior to the initiatives previously noted to assist their communities and the nation in preparing for the workforce challenges of tomorrow.

However, as Soares noted in his 2010 report, the ability of community colleges to respond rapidly to changing economic events and at a scale that can adequately address the challenges generated by such events have for decades made community colleges the pivot point between higher education and business and industry. In fact, collaborations between industry and the nation’s community college system have significantly impacted the economic life of the United States. In their 2009 report, Holzer and Nightingale noted that community colleges account for approximately 35 percent of all post-secondary students. To further demonstrate the impact of the nation’s community college systems, it’s important to note that by 2012, community college students represented 45 percent of all U.S. undergraduates and 42 percent of the nation’s first-time freshmen. Holzer and Nightingale also reported the programs offered by community colleges provide lower income and working adults the kind of post-secondary education and re-training opportunities that often result in increased earnings potential and overall a more competitive workforce.

As noted in the 2014 report released by the American Association of Community Colleges, the impact of community colleges on the economy of the United States surpassed $800 billion in added income during 2012 equaling 5.4 percent of the nation’s Gross National Product, with longer term benefits for communities realized in increased tax revenue, decreased demands for safety net services and lower crime rates as examples. For example within North Carolina, the impact of the state’s community college system was found to account for approximately 11 percent of the economic growth of the 58 counties hosting a community college, with a state-wide impact of $1.4 billion or the equivalent of over 50,000 jobs added to the state’s economy annually.

Though they are known by various titles, throughout the nation the workforce and economic development units of community colleges are typically charged with the responsibility for expanding the institution’s outreach to businesses, industries and other organizations in an effort to increase workplace skills and aid in the creation of new career opportunities. The role of community and technical colleges in the economic health of the regions they serve is particularly vital during economic downturns, when these institutions typically experience significant enrollment increases as those individuals who have incurred job losses seek the opportunity to gain skills that will prepare them for new careers, often in fields that were non-existent when they began their first careers.

From my years of experience working within a community college system, with business and industry, adult learners, non-profits and senior institutions, I found that the development of partnerships and collaborations holds the key to assuring success in growing economic and workforce development opportunities. Such collaborations are to be celebrated, nurtured and when opportunities present themselves, expanded with other organizations not only for the benefit of the institution, but more importantly for the benefit of the college’s host community and region in general.

Examples of how industry and community colleges collaborate to retrain current employees and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow can be found at Gaston College in Dallas, North Carolina where efforts are underway to renovate existing technical training facilities while constructing a state-of–the-art center for advanced manufacturing with both projects receiving significant input from industry. When combined with recently launched industrial apprenticeship programs, these projects will furnish not only the college’s existing student population, but employees of regional manufacturers with the more advanced skills needed for today’s and tomorrow’s regional workforce. Although such initiatives are not unique to Gaston College, and in fact have either been underway at colleges throughout the nation or are currently on the horizon, these examples demonstrate the relationship between communities, colleges and industry and more importantly such examples demonstrate the responsiveness of community colleges to the needs of business and industry.

While not foreign to other areas of education, advisory committees within community colleges such as the 37 advisory committees at Gaston College assist with the development and refinement of curriculum to meet the specific workforce development needs of the region served by each college. An example of the influence of these committees, which are typically comprised of industry representatives with direct involvement in manufacturing, are the emergence of industry-specific credentials also known as stackable credentials which provide students with marketable skills in their chosen career field while continuing their work toward an associate degree.

Another rather recent development is that competency-based instruction, which is currently being discussed and considered within four-year institutions, has received the greatest attention and subsequent implementation within the nation’s community colleges. The movement toward competency-based education as well as stackable credentials is in direct response to the requests of business and industry in each community, not just to their existing workforce needs, but what they anticipate their training needs will be over the next five to 10 years.
In addition to advisory committees, community colleges gain insight on the future workforce development needs of their service areas through research and their participation in regional workforce investment boards, economic development commissions and chambers of commerce, all of which typically feature significant representation from industry, K-12, businesses and four-year institutions, along with state and local governmental agencies that develop short and long range plans for the economic and workforce development needs of a region. Through their participation in such organizations, community colleges not only receive input on existing training needs, but also help shape the long-range planning of the economic and workforce development of their respective service regions.

The relationship between industry and the community college then is not simply one of a customer seeking training and the community college providing those services. Rather, it is often a partnership that brings these entities together to work one-on-one or in collaboration with other sectors of a regional economy to identify opportunities and share resources to ensure the competitiveness of the existing labor force while developing the highly skilled workers that will be needed to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Dennis L. McElhoe, Ph.D. is Vice President for Economic and Workforce Development at Gaston College in Dallas, North Carolina
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