Friends in Both Places: Best Practices for Community College and Employer Partnerships
The Project on Workforce at Harvard Summer Fellowship Series
This report is a product of the Project on Workforce’s Summer Fellowship Program, a short-term research and policy opportunity for Harvard graduate students and recent alumni from the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Summer fellows are placed in interdisciplinary, cross-school project teams over the course of the summer and complete projects focused on pressing policy or operational challenges at the intersection of education, labor markets, and workforce development. The Fellowship Program also provides students with opportunities for professional development and engagement with staff and faculty at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, the Managing the Future of Work Project at Harvard Business School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The views expressed in this report are the sole responsibility of the Summer Fellows and are not meant to represent the views of the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, or the Education Design Lab. Find more Project on Workforce research on our website and on LinkedIn.
As community colleges nationwide grapple with declining enrollment and employers face an increasing need to streamline quality employee training, the call for college-workforce partnerships has grown louder in the past decade. Academic literature advocating for increased partnerships has expanded, along with a growing number of successful case studies. However, the formula for a successful partnership remains uncertain. This report aims to highlight similarities among successful college-workforce partnerships and contribute to the growing body of literature on the subject.
Through our research, we identified five key employer partnership best practices that have been central to successful community college initiatives:
Foster symbiotic partnerships with employers.
Emphasize collaboration with entire sectors rather than individual employers.
Cultivate a workforce readiness mindset that extends throughout the entire college.
Maintain regular and effective communication with a diverse range of workforce stakeholders.
Prioritize data-driven decision-making and cultivate hyper-local partnerships.
The primary data collection method for this report involved conducting interviews with community college leaders. Additionally, a smaller yet significant number of interviews were conducted with funders, employers, and policy makers. In total, the research team conducted over 23 interviews over the course of 8 weeks. To complement our methodological approach, we conducted an in-depth literature review and case-specific research.
“At some point, students will seek gainful employment whether they transfer or not.” - Marcia Ballinger, President of Lorain County Community College (quoted in America's Hidden Economic Engines)
Over the last decade, community colleges have seen a steady decrease in enrollment. Some states have seen modest upticks in 2023, but the year-over-year trends are alarming nonetheless. Conversely, US employers are reconciling with record rates of turnover. Most importantly, workers believe that they require more training to enter or move up within their field. They also believe that “employment has been rising faster in occupations requiring more preparation” and that workers themselves are responsible for finding and acquiring that training and preparation. As such, all three parties are primed for cooperation. However, that cooperation is far from assured. A number of roadblocks, misunderstandings, and miscommunications are poised to stymie collaboration.
This report is written with the intent to understand how to better cultivate that collaboration to support New Majority Learners. Findings are narrowly focused on the training phase within the larger career navigation framework. Our reasoning for this focus is that community colleges have the most input and control over this phase of the process as opposed to hiring, onboarding, funding, etc.
The report takes the form of five case studies, a review of findings, each outlining a key employer partnership best practice that proved central to successful community college initiatives at a given college. A review of these findings and recommendations will follow. The report will close with a brief discussion of further research and potential partners that the Education Design Lab might partner with to address unanswered research questions.
While the findings of this report are intended to be highly generalizable, our primary focus is on the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). In collaboration with Citizens Bank and the Education Design Lab, CCP launched two new programs in 2023: an Electro-Mechanical Technology and a Computer Support Specialist Technician program. The authors of this report aimed to offer practical and actionable insights to support New Majority Learners who could benefit from increased employer collaboration with either or both of CCP's new courses. Additionally, the Education Design Lab provided valuable guidance and insight throughout the project, with many interviews centered on partnerships established through the creation of micro pathways, also known as micro credentials or stackable credentials.
Data & Methodology
This report was developed using the following sources:
Interviews with 22 stakeholders between June and July, 2023.
9 interviews with Community College of Philadelphia leadership and single interviews with leadership from Alamo Colleges District, Austin Community College, Colorado Community College System, Community College of Aurora, and Northern Essex Community College.
One interview with Citizens Bank.
One interview with Procter & Gamble.
Six interviews with Education Design Lab & Urban Manufacturing Alliance.
Four interviews Harvard Project on Workforce Faculty.
Review of latest research from leading independent research & policy organizations.
Analysis of promising practices from community colleges across the United States.
Through our analysis, we aimed to understand what actions community colleges can take to make stronger and more fruitful relationships with employers with the intent to uplift New Majority Learners.
1. Foster meaningful partnerships with employers
Meaningful partnerships are symbiotic. The ideal partnership allows colleges to train workers to meet employers' needs, and employers, in turn, invest in the colleges' students' futures. Both parties contribute value to each other's mission. In an ideal partnership, employers offer on-site training, mock interviews, provide colleges with employment data, and commit to hiring or interviewing a set number of program graduates, among other value-adds. Similarly, colleges can attract employer commitment by tailoring programs to meet employers' needs, supporting them in training workers throughout their career navigation cycle, and helping them diversify their workforce and customize their value proposition to learners.
Finger Lake Community College
Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) is a public community college located in Canandaigua, New York. Using regional workforce data, FLCC identified a gap in the supply of trained machinists. To ensure that their programs were in-line with local employer needs, college leadership worked closely with two regional manufacturers: ITT Goulds Pumps and Finger Lakes Advanced Manufacturing Enterprise.
FLCC's engagement came in a series of inflection points:
The FLCC Machinist Program’s success is evident in their near 100% placement rate for each graduating class with partner employers over multiple years– consistently training cohorts of 20-25 students twice a year. Most impressive was that nearly all students successfully secured paid positions after completing the program. The program was sun-setted after one of the employers absorbed the program.
In conclusion, by aligning interests, investing resources, and actively engaging in program design and execution, colleges and employers can create a powerful synergy that benefits learners and the workforce alike.  
2. Emphasize collaboration with entire sectors rather than individual employers.
Shifting the focus from individual employers to entire sectors has proven immensely beneficial for colleges seeking employer partnerships. By building pipelines for sectors instead of relying on a single employer, community colleges decrease their vulnerability to economic shifts and erratic employer whims, while increasing student exposure to would-be employers.
Granted, this then requires more time, energy, and engagement on the part of colleges. To facilitate streamlined engagement with employers, community colleges can establish a single, coordinated, employer-facing unit responsible for building and managing relationships. Placing this unit at the leadership level close to a President or Chancellor can empower the unit to make decisions quickly and efficiently on behalf of various parts of the colleges. If overlap is unavoidable, creating a cross department knowledge transfer system is helpful. Some crossover is inevitable. Career services, development, and workforce offices will all need to interact with the same partner in various capacities. Still the hunt for consistent, collaborative, and unified communication is paramount. Conversely, collaborating with regional industry organizations, rather than individual employers, can offer a broader and more stable foundation for workforce development initiatives.
City Colleges of Chicago
As of 2010, City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) educated nearly 61,000 students across its seven campuses annually. Duplication of programs across colleges posed significant challenges:
1) Multiple colleges offering similar programs forced employers to engage with several institutions, causing inefficiencies in their recruiting processes.
2) Qualified instructors and specialized equipment were thinly spread across colleges.
3) Managing multiple sectors made it challenging for colleges to develop in-depth expertise in any specific industry.
In 2010, a newly appointed chancellor created Centers of Excellence (CoEs) at each campus.
Each college was designated as an independent CoE and tasked with taking the lead on a single industry focus. They were also responsible for developing and nurturing relationships with employers in their respective sectors. To concentrate resources and expertise, certain capital-intensive programs like machining were consolidated on one or two campuses.
There were trade-offs. This new model led to increased commute times for learners who had to travel to specific campuses for programs. However, in total, the reorganization led to quicker response times from employers and higher quality programming from a student's perspective. Indeed, the number of degrees awarded has doubled and the graduation rate has tripled since 2009.
3. Cultivate a workforce readiness mindset
Mindset refers to a community college’s overall culture and mission. A school’s commitment to student workforce readiness is as important as the workforce programs themselves. The college is mandated to meet the student’s needs first and foremost, but the college must also view employers as equally important stakeholders.
This workforce-centric mindset however, cannot live within a single office, department, or program. In order to reach every student, a workforce-centric mindset ought to permeate from the President’s office down to the college’s most junior staff member.
Spurring a mindset shift is no small undertaking. It is an incremental process. But, there are predictable opportunities to spur that mindset shift. Putting workforce at the center of strategic planning is key for shifting mindsets. Furthermore, using learner hiring data as a benchmark for fruitful employer partnerships and impactful program creation can signal a commitment to workforce preparedness across a college. While not all employers need to touch every component of a workforce initiative, all staff should be aware of how their role plays into a learner’s work-readiness.
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
Located in rural South Mississippi, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC) sought to center workforce access in their most recent strategic plan, Excelerate 2030. Implemented in 2021, the strategic plan redoubled MGCCC’s commitment to workforce access in all aspects of the institution.
College leaders prioritized input from local workforce partners when drafting their strategic plan. The emphasis was on "listening over selling." According to senior policymakers and community colleges interviewed, MGCCC's top-down approach was pivotal in fostering a college-wide workforce mindset. However, this initiative extended beyond the President's office, permeating the entire institution.
The workforce mindset materialized in various forms, including workforce training modules integrated into first-year seminar courses and the establishment of new institutes like the Careers Readiness Center in partnership with Goodwill Industries of South Mississippi. As of FY 22, MGCCC boasted 59 separate workforce partners. Of those partners, many contributed to high job placement rates for career-centric programs, including a 100% job placement rate for MGCCC’s Practical Nursing program graduates in 2022. 
4. Maintain regular, diverse, and effective communication
Collaborating with employers necessitates ongoing and multifaceted insights. Often, leaders in the workforce domain lack a comprehensive understanding of their own challenges, hindering their immediate ability to create solutions (either alone or in partnership with colleges). Consequently, community colleges bear the responsibility of undertaking the diagnostic task, thoroughly examining these impediments, and formulating appropriate remedies. As such, a diverse range of perspectives will equip colleges with a comprehensive understanding of the pain points and the intricacies surrounding them. Strategies to diversity input include: Speak with as many parties as feasible; seek insight into all aspects of a program, from the curriculum to the location of a campus; and listen to voices outside of the college first to understand how the college’s offerings fit naturally or where new opportunities may be needed.
The Colorado Community College System
The Colorado Community College System (CCCS) spans 38 separate and largely decentralized colleges. Despite the lack of centralization, the college has undertaken a coordinated effort on the national and local levels to increase employer partnerships while also working to alleviate employer concerns. A key component in the success of CCCS’s work is the cadence of voices that inform and influence their solutions. When a pain point is brought to the college, leadership seeks out a multitude of voices to find solutions.
Colorado Community College's Aurora campus diligently engages with employers on a weekly basis, fostering a continuous cycle of feedback and improvement. Through this iterative process, a multitude of voices have been invited to the table, including direct input from front-line workers, rather than solely relying on human resources or executive staff. After hearing “that employers were searching for applicants with specific competencies and CCCS transcripts only listed course titles and grades” CCC implemented one of the nation's first state-wide digital badge processes- enhancing the trackability, uniformity, and credibility of credentials. Industry representatives and faculty from across the CCC system provided insight to help align badge competencies. Partners on the state-level helped to create a hosting platform and uniformity of badges.
While we were unable to find contemporary data at the time of this publication, the program’s first year produced a total of 72, and a total of 535 badges have been awarded to 202 unique individuals. As of July 25, 2017, the badges have had over 91,200 views “either by direct URL to the participants’ specific badge or through social media (13 percent shared through Facebook, 78 percent shared through LinkedIn, and 9 percent shared through Twitter).  
5. Prioritize data-driven decision-making and hyper-local partnerships
Employer needs vary significantly by region. To stay responsive to this need, community colleges need to think local when it comes to engaging employers and collecting labor market information. Decisions about new programs, classes, or pathways must be based on regional workforce data, employer needs, and internal resources and data. Community colleges are poised to be workforce data hubs, which in turn creates value, and more opportunities for funding and partnerships.
To develop a data-driven approach, community colleges should establish a structured methodology for data collection, define data needs, and ensure data integrity. Investing in a robust data infrastructure enables secure storage and effective analysis of the growing volume of data. Employing analytical tools and techniques, such as statistical analysis and data visualization, allows colleges to derive meaningful insights. Involving stakeholders fosters a culture of data-informed decision-making, benefiting from diverse perspectives. Monitoring key performance indicators aligned with goals enables adjustments to strategies, while providing faculty and staff with data literacy training enhances their ability to use data effectively for improved outcomes.
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA)
NOVA is a prominent public community college with six campuses and four centers strategically located in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. One of the key factors contributing to NOVA's success is its substantial investment in internal capacity to analyze labor market data. They received national attention after Amazon cited the college as one of the leading doctors in their decision to found the highly lauded Amazon HQ2 in Crystal City, Arlington, near NOVA. Much of that success, and others, can be credited to Steve Partridge's, Vice President for Strategy, Research and Workforce Innovation, creation of NOVA’s Labor Market Intelligence (LMI) Team.
NOVA's LMI team has significantly enhanced the college's capacity to collect, analyze, and disseminate labor market data, enabling valuable insights for decision-making. They share labor market insights with stakeholders through regular publications, including quarterly reports on job postings, wages, and skill requirements by industry, as well as an annual workforce brief that provides a comprehensive analysis of high-growth industries. The LMI website offers student-facing data, facilitates informed career decisions, and provides interactive dashboards presenting economic and demographic data. NOVA values collaboration and data partnerships, teaming up with the Chamber of Commerce (NVCC) to produce the Workforce Index, an insightful report on remote work, hiring, and education requirements within the region.
NOVA's data-driven strategies have led to remarkable results, securing $45.1 million in federal and state government funding. This has enabled the launch and expansion of key programs–such as Data Center Operations, Skilled Trades, and Health Care–all meticulously selected based on labor market data analysis. Additionally, NOVA has formed industry partnerships with Amazon and Goodwill Living, further aligning their educational offerings with the needs of the IT/Cyber Security and Healthcare sectors. Overall, NOVA's dedication to data-driven decision-making has empowered the college to address workforce needs effectively, provide relevant educational programs, and foster strong collaborations with industry leaders. 
Key Findings and Recommendations
In summation, research supports the claim that five characteristics and actions taken by community colleges can lead to stronger ties between colleges and employers. They are as follows:
Foster meaningful partnerships with employers, where colleges and employers contribute value to each other's missions, resulting in successful programs with high job placement rates– Colleges can proactively engage with local employers through industry advisory boards, joint task forces, and regular networking events to identify skill gaps and align their programs with current workforce demands. Additionally, implementing work-based learning opportunities such as internships, apprenticeships, and cooperative education programs that allow students to gain practical experience and build relationships with employers will further strengthen these partnerships.
Emphasize collaboration with entire sectors rather than individual employers, reducing vulnerability to economic shifts and erratic employer whims, and increasing student exposure to a broader range of employers– By establishing regional workforce collaboratives that bring together multiple community colleges, employers, workforce development agencies, and other stakeholders, colleges can collectively address regional workforce needs and promote sector-specific career pathways. These pathways can span across different community colleges and link to industries with high demand for skilled workers, providing students with diverse career options and enhancing their employability.
Cultivate a workforce readiness mindset, ensuring that the college views employers as crucial stakeholders, and that commitment to workforce preparedness permeates from the President's office down to the college's staff– To achieve this, colleges should develop professional development programs for faculty and staff focused on understanding industry trends, employer expectations, and strategies for effectively preparing students for the workforce. Moreover, establishing a centralized career services office that collaborates closely with academic departments will ensure that career guidance and job placement support are integrated into students' educational journeys, further emphasizing the importance of workforce readiness.
Maintain regular, diverse, and effective communication, involving a multitude of voices and perspectives, to gain a comprehensive understanding of employer pain points and the intricacies surrounding them– Conducting regular employer surveys and focus groups to gather feedback on the relevance of curriculum, the effectiveness of graduates, and areas for improvement is essential in this regard. Additionally, establishing employer-led committees or task forces that participate in program reviews, curriculum development, and ongoing evaluation will ensure that employer input drives continuous improvement in educational offerings and strengthens communication channels.
Prioritize data-driven decision-making and hyper-local partnerships using labor market data, regional employer needs, and internal resources to make informed decisions– Creating data-sharing agreements with local employers to access real-time labor market information will enable colleges to effectively align their programs with the evolving needs of the job market. By collaborating with regional economic development agencies, workforce boards, and local chambers of commerce, colleges can leverage resources, share data insights, and collectively address the workforce challenges faced by the community, strengthening hyper-local partnerships.
Understanding the employer side of this relationship would complement this report wonderfully. As would understanding the student perspective. Moreover, providing an in-depth review of unsuccessful attempts to implement the actions listed in each case study would provide further insights into roadblocks and pitfalls to avoid. Lastly, this report largely lacks quantitative findings. A complementary quantitative analysis of similar projects, drawing on data sets that could include the number, frequency, and subject of communication between parties, or the number of partners within a given sector that lead to a critical mass, would be helpful as well. No matter the research, the need for a quantitative review of the suggestions listed in the report would undoubtedly prove fruitful.
About the Authors
Hector Ortiz Domenech is a current MPA degree student at Harvard Kennedy School studying international development and economic policy. Prior to graduate school, Hector obtained a BA and MA in Economics and taught economics and mathematics at the University of Puerto Rico. Additionally, he was an analytics consultant focusing on government and health projects in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As a Project on Workforce Summer Fellow, Hector looks forward to better understanding, measuring, and improving job pathways for New Majority Learners.
Nandini Thogarapalli is a second year Master’s in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is passionate about using data for good and has effectively leveraged data to solve a range of problems in the public and private sector. Prior to her time at the Kennedy School, she worked as a Digital Projects Fellow at Generation, an education non-profit that prepares, places, and supports people into life-changing careers. She also advised a range of non-profit and for-profit organizations as an Engagement Manager at McKinsey & Company.
Cole Wilson is a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he studied college partnerships, academic freedom, and social engagement. Prior to enrolling at Harvard, Cole worked on state-level policy with groups such as Young Invincibles and in the Texas House of Representatives. Most recently he served as an educator at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas. Cole has devoted his life to uplifting and amplifying the voices of young people. That calling led him to Harvard and the Project on Workforce.
The research team would like to express their sincerest gratitude to the staff at the Project on Workforce, especially Ali Epstein and Kelsey Heroux for their time, energy, effort, and support on this project. Also, we would like to offer our thanks to the staff at the Education Design Lab, especially Minzi Thomas. This project would not have been possible without her vision, dedication, and hard work. Thank you so much, Minzi. To all the interviewees, faculty, and friends who contributed to this project– thank you. Furthermore, the Project on Workforce would like to thank the Capital One Foundation for their support for the Summer Fellows program. The views expressed in this paper are the sole responsibility of the authors and not meant to represent the views of the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, or Education Design Lab.
Please direct inquiries to: Hector Ortiz Domenech at email@example.com, Nandini Thogarapalli at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Cole Wilson at email@example.com.
Suggested citation: Domenech, H., Thogarapalli, N, and Wilson, C. (August 2023). “Friends in Both Places: An investigation into Best Practices for Community College and Employer Partnerships.” Published by Harvard Kennedy School.
About the Project on Workforce at Harvard
The Project on Workforce is an interdisciplinary, collaborative project between the Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, the Harvard Business School Managing the Future of Work Project, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The Project produces and catalyzes basic and applied research at the intersection of education and labor markets for leaders in business, education, and policy. The Project’s research aims to help shape a postsecondary system of the future that creates more and better pathways to economic mobility and forges smoother transitions between education and careers. Learn more at www.pw.hks.harvard.edu/our-work.
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 New Majority Learners is a term coined by the Education Design Lab used to encompass a wide range of learners. New Majority Learners is largely synonymous with other terms such as: historically marginalized, under-resourced, and nontraditional students. See more here: https://eddesignlab.org/newmajoritylearners/.
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