Engaging in deeper partnerships

By Evon W. Walters

Collaboration is the key to meeting U.S. workforce needs

The demand for highly skilled and educated workers continues to be one of the most pressing long-term workforce issues facing the country. Numerous research agencies have identified increasing post-secondary credentials among the labor force as a national imperative. In my own region of Pittsburgh, for instance, labor forecasts predict a potential shortfall of 80,000 workers by 2025 due to baby boomer retirements and new job growth.

Nonetheless, my year on the College Readiness Commission of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has left me encouraged by the focus, energy and collective efforts of the many national thought-leaders, professional associations, community colleges and states involved in workforce development efforts. What it has reinforced for me is that community colleges must collaborate more closely with business and industry partners and with secondary schools to address gaps in interest, awareness and preparedness among underserved communities — to find ways to creatively engage, inform and empower potential workers to become aware of and compete for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs.

Such promising practices as El Paso Community College’s Dual Enrollment Summit program, Bellevue College’s Career Connected Learning program and Heartland Community College’s college and career readiness program powerfully demonstrate the importance of being intentional in cultivating relationships among the education sector, workforce and economic development agencies, and small and large businesses. Such collaboration is central to a region’s ability to meet its workforce development needs.

At Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC), under the dynamic leadership of President Quintin Bullock, we have actively worked to build mutually beneficial partnerships with a wide spectrum of regional organizations with which we share an aligned interest in increasing the skill level and credentials of our region’s existing and future workforce.

The most visible example of this engagement is CCAC’s current plans for a high-tech, 90,000 square-foot collaborative workforce training facility that will house occupational cluster programs in such high-demand fields as advanced manufacturing, information technology, health care and culinary arts. This new facility and the ongoing curriculum development are a result of an intensive planning process informed both by labor market research data and the active participation of local business and industry leaders that we systematically engaged via one-on-one meetings, benchmarking site visits and focus groups.

One consequence of this active engagement was the realization that, despite decades of cooperation within the same geographic region, various stakeholders’ awareness of our respective roles, services and needs was limited or had become outdated. After jointly exploring creative ways to partner in a more systemic and sustainable fashion, our college is now working more closely with our regional economic and workforce agency and Chamber of Commerce to conduct joint focus group and awareness building sessions with business and industry leaders to better understand their current and projected workforce needs. These efforts will ensure that our curriculum will remain market-relevant and responsive to evolving needs within the labor market and allow us to more proactively engage, inform and empower prospective workers within the K-12 sector and current workforce.

My experience on the AACC taskforce and in my own institutional setting have renewed my confidence that community colleges will continue to find effective strategies to cultivate mutually beneficial collaboration with key external partners to expand the pipeline of available labor talent.

Evon W. Walters

is president of Community College of Allegheny County’s Allegheny Campus and Homewood Brushton Center in Pennsylvania.