Corporate Partnerships and Closing the Skills Gap

By Rebecca L. Weber

Kirkwood Community College helps women in need with Walmart Brighter Futures program.

Over the past few years, the Walmart Foundation and the League for Innovation in the Community College have teamed up for the Walmart Brighter Futures (WBF) 2.0 program, working with a dozen community colleges to help low-income individuals develop skills and empower employees.

When WBF announced its second iteration, the program seemed to synchronize with what Kirkwood Community College (KCC), in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was already doing in its career-pathways program.

“The timing was just right,” says Judy Stoffel, student access program developer of student services at KCC. “Sometimes when you read an RFP, it speaks to you and where your college is at.”

KCC was already working with community partners. The local United Way had identified single female heads of households as a population in great need of assistance. Stoffel, who previously worked at United Way, says the team there raised awareness about KCC education options. Many of the staff members were “best suited to know if [KCC] training was a good fit,” Stoffel says.

To best serve the needs of these women, KCC has intensified its efforts to marry career pathways and social supports. Such services provide a chance to develop ongoing relationships with students who have life barriers that can impede training.

The college receives funding from a number of sources — for example, the state of Iowa offers its community colleges money for pathway navigators — but WBF ties all of the pieces together, Stoffel says. One of KCC’s successes is in its creativity of using resources while making the experience seamless for students.

The college is able to provide incentives for students facing critical milestones in career planning. KCC assists students who need a credential but cannot afford the cost of a licensing exam, helping students overcome final barriers to employment.

“It’s any college’s goal to be diversified. We have limitations on what [funds] can be used for,” she says. “Walmart Brighter Futures comprehensively addresses student needs.”

Bridging industry and individual needs

Reaching out to low-income single moms who are low-skilled and underemployed is often a delicate matter. “They need to see that there’s a way out. A degree — that could be overwhelming,” Stoffel says. “When we can market stackable credentials, [and show them that] after earning a short-term certificate that they can have more stability, that’s really appealing.”

It’s also crucial for the college to be, as Stoffel puts it, nimble and responsive to industry needs.

Health care is one of KCC’s strongest programs. Employers mostly want registered nurses, but there are many other job opportunities along the pathway. KCC has been developing ways to effectively communicate to potential candidates how they can grow professionally within the health care industry. Seamless transition from noncredit to credit training is also crucial for those without marketable skills.

“It’s important when we market career pathways to students that we show there are multiple on-ramps for training, and off-ramps for employment,” Stoffel says.

“There’s variation in the roles within the health care industry — added responsibilities,” she says. “How do we help build upon the skill set that industry needs?”

Rebecca L. Weber

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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