Education Design Lab hosted Fellows from Harvard’s Project on Workforce during the summer of 2023. The Fellows conducted interviews with community college leaders, employers, and community organizations to evaluate collaborative opportunities to better serve today’s learner-earner population. The outcome of the Fellows’ research is the identification of five best practices for employer engagement that are central to effective community college initiatives:

  1. Foster symbiotic partnerships with employers.
  2. Emphasize collaboration with entire sectors rather than individual employers.
  3. Cultivate a workforce readiness mindset that extends throughout the college.
  4. Maintain regular and effective communication with a diverse range of workforce stakeholders.
  5. Prioritize data-driven decision-making and cultivate hyper-local partnerships.

The following is an exploration of two of these best practices in action at community colleges working with Education Design Lab’s Community College Growth Engine.

Maintain Regular and Effective Communication With a Diverse Range of Workforce Stakeholders

Sustainable employer collaboration requires ongoing engagement. Industry leaders may lack a comprehensive understanding of their hiring challenges, which may hinder their ability to create solutions. Community colleges have an opportunity to develop meaningful partnerships with employers that require regular exchanges of data around workforce and learner-earner needs. Evaluating the nuances around hiring and retention challenges is critical to developing effective solutions.

The Colorado Community College System (CCCS) is decentralized and includes 13 colleges. These institutions work at the system and local levels to address employer needs. As needs surface, college leaders seek a multitude of voices to identify solutions. Engagement strategies at both the local and system levels can be divided into three categories: frequency of contact, diversity of contacts, and nurturing of contacts.

The staff at the Community College of Aurora (CCA) engage employers on a weekly basis, fostering a continuous cycle of feedback and improvement. A multitude of voices are invited to the table, including frontline workers, rather than relying solely 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, staff elevated this barrier to the system. In response, CCCS implemented one of the nation’s first statewide digital badge wallet processes, effectively enhancing the trackability, uniformity, and credibility of credentials. The state of Colorado helped create a hosting platform for badge uniformity.

Prioritize Data-Driven Decision-Making and Cultivate Hyper-Local Partnerships

As employer needs vary by region, it’s critical for colleges to think local when collecting labor market information. Community colleges are poised to serve as workforce data hubs and must establish structured methods for data collection, define data needs, and ensure data integrity. Employing analytical tools and techniques, such as statistical analysis and data visualization, allows colleges to derive meaningful insights from data.

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is a public institution in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. NOVA’s success is due to an investment in its internal capacity to analyze labor market data. Steve Partridge, Vice President for Strategy, Research and Workforce Innovation, created the Labor Market Intelligence (LMI) Team.

The LMI Team has significantly enhanced the college’s capacity to collect, analyze, and disseminate labor market data, enabling valuable insights for decision-making. Team members share insights with stakeholders through 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.

The data-driven strategies implemented at NOVA have led to an award of $45.1 million in federal and state funding. The college’s dedication to data-driven decision-making has empowered the college to effectively address workforce needs, provide relevant academic programming, and foster strong collaboration across industries.

Sustaining Talent Pipelines

To ensure an equitable and thriving skills-based economy, colleges must help learners visibly showcase their verifiable skills and competencies to employers. Ensuring that all learning counts is not only critical to addressing inequities, but also an economic imperative to better align labor market supply with the demand for a skilled workforce.

For more information, visit the Harvard Project on Workforce publication, Friends in Both Places: Best Practices for Community College and Employer Partnerships, and Education Design Lab.


Minzi Thomas, Ed.D.

Senior Education Designer
College Transformation


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