A partner in local economic stability

By Brian Caputo

Community colleges are a proven resource for local small businesses and entrepreneurs

Community colleges are renowned for their leadership in workforce development.

This work is even more crucial as communities continue to rebuild their economic bases while still dealing with Covid-19 and an uncertain future. As colleges and universities across the country return to a modified presence on campus this fall, academic leaders are engaged in ongoing discussions about the short- and long-term impact of the pandemic.

What we do know is that community colleges can be instrumental in helping our communities as they move forward. In order to do so, here are three ways in which community colleges can leverage their resources to ensure a solid foundation for regional stability and ultimate growth.

Help small businesses

First, connect small business owners with your college’s small business development center. What the community may not realize is that a small business development center can provide one-on-one counseling services at no charge. Services may include reviewing business plans, discussing financing options and developing marketing plans.

In Illinois, College of DuPage has a long history of success in this area, and our Business Development Center (BDC) went into overdrive after the pandemic hit. During the first six weeks alone, the BDC provided 450 hours of advising services to 150 small business clients and 85 non-clients, which far exceeded the number from the same period in the previous year.

Recently, Illinois announced a $250 million Back-to-Business grant program to support the continued recovery of small businesses, with many other states following suit. Navigating grant applications can be complicated, but the experts at your center can help for free.

A small business development center can also form partnerships with other areas of the college. For example, our BDC joined forces with the Continuing Education and Public Services Division to offer the English Language Acquisition Entrepreneurship Program, which combines business teaching with English language skills. Eight students, all of different nationalities and each with different business ideas, passed the English Language Proficiency Tests and made final verbal presentations of their business plans to complete the program.

Initiatives like this can remove barriers — such as language — to encourage local entrepreneurship.

Develop strategic partnerships

A second way to support local and regional economic development is through strategic community partnerships. College of DuPage (COD), the Village of Glen Ellyn and Choose DuPage (our county’s economic development agency) initially created Innovation DuPage, a nonprofit business incubator, accelerator and training facility. Since its launch in 2019, Innovation DuPage has formed more than 50 partnerships with organizations in academia, government, industry and two U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories; incubated 70 companies; and conducted five, three-month accelerator cohorts graduating 62 companies.

Innovation DuPage demonstrates a commitment to small business development that brings together entrepreneurs, community partners, campus resources and even students at all levels of schooling. For example, Innovation DuPage has hosted three business pitch competitions for high school and college students and created more than 400 mentorship opportunities for students.

As we all know, great innovation can come during the most challenging of times. A community college is uniquely positioned to succeed with a venture like Innovation DuPage, especially when combined with a small business development center and academic resources that help promote entrepreneurship among students.

Use apprenticeships

A third way to leverage resources is to tackle workforce development needs by partnering with local business leaders through apprenticeship programs. Our Project Hire-Ed model combines on-the-job training with focused and highly relevant instruction. It is commonly referred to as an “earn and learn” model and can apply to a variety of industries, from manufacturing and HVACR, to healthcare and computer science.

This past year, COD piloted a youth apprenticeship program to create a high school-to-college apprenticeship pipeline, thereby increasing the opportunities for gainful employment and careers within the regional economic landscape.

As we begin to look ahead to a post-pandemic world, community colleges should be an integral part of workforce and economic development. Most of us are already involved in this work, and now is the time to build upon existing programs. This will ensure a strong regional economic foundation and cultivate growth opportunities.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Brian Caputo

is president of College of DuPage in Illinois.