Characteristics of Successful Local Partnerships for Community Growth
Traditional mid-skill jobs—those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree—are changing. Half of all jobs in the United States today are medium-skill jobs, with significant demand placed on the labor pipeline. Today, corporate executives and relocation consultants cite the availability of skilled local workers as their biggest concern, and the pressure is now on community colleges that provide this talent pool. Additionally, community leaders and employers are lobbying local economic development organizations to grow and diversify the economy and workforce. The resulting focus on skills training and community expectations for an inclusive economic development process heightens the need for colleges and economic development organizations (EDOs) to partner in inclusive community growth. In Stegeman’s 2021 study, we identified commonalities between highly successful community college and ODE partnerships and identified how communities can replicate strategies designed to meet local workplace demands. The study addressed two main questions: What are the characteristics of successful partnerships between community colleges and local EDOs? And what community college programs, policies, or practices have contributed to this partnership?
We have found that these partnerships require a holistic, long-term approach, with community prosperity as the primary shared goal. Specifically, the study found:
1) Partnerships do not focus on a single activity but on a wide range of issues important to the region. Colleges and DEAs should approach partnership as a strategic undertaking with the potential to achieve multiple goals. Each partnership is engaged in business attraction, business growth, and workforce development activities, but they also collaborate on each other’s initiatives.
2) Communication is the cornerstone of the partnership, with the resulting trust being paramount to their success. Participants recognized the importance of honest communication between organizations. Each partner approached the work as collaborators and not as competitors. They communicated regularly through formal and informal means due to the scope of activities. Participants described the need for a reliable exchange of current information and the trust they had in their partner to share information on companies, jobs and projects.
3) Colleges and ADEs recognized that their main components were the community. Each organization sees its role in the community as different, but its ultimate goal is to better and serve the community. As partners, they work independently and cooperatively for the good of the community and willingly invest resources, human or financial, in collaborative efforts.
4) Each partner respects the obstacles encountered by the other. Participants understood the parameters within which their partner was obligated to work and respected their partner’s abilities to do their best to overcome obstacles and deliver. Colleges need to work aroundfind curriculum processes and ensure programs meet accreditation standards. EDOs must move at the speed demanded by their customers and have quotas for business growth/attraction.
5) Speed, agility and the ability to make decisions for their organization are essential elements of the role of those who represent their organization within the partnership, in particular for the representative of the college. One of the often-cited benefits of working with colleges was the speed and adaptability in developing employer-specific training. Both partners understand the work required to be agile and flexible. The unique latitude given to the college workforce development/EDO interface team was described as integral to the success of the partnership. In addition, we found that each college appoints a senior manager/head of department as a single point of contact for ADE and employers. These executives reported directly to the CEO of the College or were the CEO. The leaders were universally applauded for their collaboration, cooperation and innovation.
6) The partners have invested in each other, repeatedly, for the long term. The organizations in this study have invested a variety of resources in their partner over the life of their partnership. Resources included people, dollars and influence, which led to improvements in organizations and their communities. Each partner recognized that stronger partners would translate into a better ability of their own organization to achieve the goals.
Our research has shown that productive college/EDO partnerships are staffed with collaborative, innovative, and service-oriented professionals who are focused on improving the community through the collective work of the partnership.
Dr. Pamela Stegeman is an associate professor at College of the Desert (California) and is the first recipient of the 2022 Bellwether Thesis Prize.
Dr. Terry Calaway is President Emeritus of Johnson County Community College (Kan.) and Chair of the National Advisory Board for Kansas State University’s Community College Leadership Program.
Dr. Margaretta Mathis is Senior Director and Professor of Practice, John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Kansas State University.
The Center Roueche Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.