Urban Wire Four Strategies Community Colleges Are Using to Connect Their Students to Employment
Madeline Brown, Lauren Eyster
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Imagine you are a community college administrator in an area that revolves around the hospitality industry. A new employer walks into your office and says that in the next year, they need 2,000 new employees trained for advanced manufacturing—but you only have 75 students in your pipeline. What do you do?

This was the situation for Kyle Dalpe, vice president of instruction and institutional effectiveness at Western Nevada College. To connect more students to employment, Dalpe needed to act quickly and creatively.

In a series of panels titled Connecting Community College Students to Employment, hosted at the Urban Institute in fall 2019, Dalpe and other community college representatives shared four innovative strategies community colleges are using to connect their students to employment and meet employer needs.

1. Build relationships with employers.

When Dalpe was faced with a new industry prepared to employ thousands of his students, he knew he had to get them in a room to discuss curriculum. Through a series of conversations with advisory boards and employers, Dalpe and his faculty built certificates and curricula that matched local industry job descriptions

Christi Amato of Sinclair Community College discussed the importance of asking employers to bring human resources representation to the table, “if you put HR people in a room, they will help you tinker with job descriptions.”

Community colleges also need to build trust with employers, which can form the basis of a mutually beneficial partnership.

For example, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) worked with Amazon and in six weeks, developed a curriculum that prepared students for cloud computing and artificial intelligence jobs at Amazon Web Services.

Thanks to the same relationship, Amazon created a program called the “Interview Accelerator,” in which any student who completes the program through NOVA gets a guaranteed interview with a recruiter from Amazon or one of Amazon’s partners.

Shanika Hope of Amazon Web Services said the program “came as a result of NOVA challenging us to examine our gates around [job] readiness.” Other community college representatives echoed wanting industry to see them as a go-to partner.

Julian Alssid, formerly of the Community College of Rhode Island, explained, “we want to become the trainer of choice for industry. We know industries are going to rise and fall… but what we want above all is for everyone in the state to think of us as a really serious resource for talent.”

Once trust is established, community colleges can leverage relationships to advocate for students. For example, Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, leveraged its relationship as a health care education and training provider for local hospitals to increase wages and advancement opportunities for nursing aides in training.

2. Harness data to develop programs for in-demand jobs.

Labor market needs of industries shift over time:

  • In Dayton, Ohio, formerly home to 1–3 big employers, there are now 20–30 small to midsize employers that Sinclair College must work with.
  • Rochester has seen growth in small and midsize businesses, and the rise of advanced manufacturing has companies seeking fewer employees with more skills.

To keep track of the jobs available to their students upon completion—both in quantity and quality—community colleges are increasingly turning to data for labor market insights.

Mildred Coyne of Broward College in Florida described how her institution is partnering with researchers from the nonprofit Opportunity Insights to determine whether their students have increased economic mobility following completion, as measured by their movement to new income quartiles.

3. Equip students with the skills needed to keep up with today’s dynamic nature of work.

In discussing careers available to students, Alssid noted, “when you really look at the skills and how people’s careers evolve, probably most of us in this room, it’s less like a linear pathway and more like the career vortex.”

Other panelists echoed this sentiment throughout the series, noting that in today’s labor market, there is the need to constantly up skill and even to shift careers multiple times through one’s working life. Anne Kress, formerly of Monroe Community College, emphasized that, “higher education is no longer ‘I’m going to go for four years and have my degree, and I’m set for life.’ There are things that we need to come back for.”

Community college representatives explained that the current economy has lessened the need for students to have two- and four-year degrees, but colleges need to prepare for major shifts in the economy and a downturn that might bring many former students back to college.

Several panelists said their institutions are working to ensure that credits and credentials stack and count in meaningful ways. Thus, a student could return when they need new skills and accelerate their time to degree.

As a result, a student’s employment wouldn’t rely on a single skill or credential, making them more resilient in a shifting labor market. Coyne discussed how “the changes in the marketplace are going to require a different type of employee that’s going to have the sustainability, that ability to navigate through those economic changes—we are integrating entrepreneurial-type competencies across all pathways.”

Panelists also noted that in thinking about resiliency, they work beyond technical competencies and skills to ensure their students have the life skills and critical-thinking capabilities to adapt to changing working environments. Julie Strawn of Abt Associates explained how it’s important that schools are “integrating foundational skills with job training.”

4. Expose students to meaningful work experience.

Giving students real work experience is crucial because many young students are unware of the careers available to them.

Kress noted, “We talk about these pathways as though they are these roads I can see out of the window from here—that are very clear and straight, and there are these little signs that tell you get on 395, and then you’ll know where you’re going—but most of our students don’t know.”

Such exposure can come in different forms, including apprenticeships, job shadows, internships, and skills training, that connect students to employers or industries they would not otherwise have access to. States and local governments can also support such employment.

For example, Haden Springer of the Foundation for California Community Colleges described how they serve as the employer of record for students in work-based learning opportunities, which takes some of the risk off employers and allows them to provide these opportunities.

In Utah, the Aerospace Pathways program provides high school students a 48-hour curriculum that includes a paid internship by the state. “Everything we are doing is geared to bridging the divide so that students can have exposure to different professions and career tracks, rather than just dead-end service jobs,” said one community college representative.

We want our work-based learning opportunities to unlock the ability for students to be able to communicate to employers that they are ready willing and able to contribute—and the best way to do that is to have done that before and to be able to point to those contributions in the past.

-Paul Thompson, City Colleges of Chicago

Community colleges are invaluable in training and educating America’s workforce. By maintaining relationships with employers, utilizing labor market data, teaching dynamic skills, and exposing students to work experience, colleges across the country are improving their students’ ability to obtain and retain employment.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Education Workforce
Tags Higher education Workforce development Beyond high school: education and training Community colleges
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab