May 26, 2013

Business, community colleges unite

Paul Grasso, Just Sayin'

— Two weeks ago, I attended the State University of New York’s (SUNY) Summit on Community Colleges and the Future on New York’s Workforce hosted by SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. The event brought 30 community colleges and their business and industry partners together to discuss building a 21st century workforce in New York.

The list of business attendees was impressive. Representative from Global Foundries, GE, Raymond Corporation, IBM, Keller Technology and the Buffalo-Niagara Alliance to name a few, plus me. It was like one of those children’s puzzle books, which one doesn’t belong?

While I was the executive director of the North Country Workforce Investment Board, we held two “Connecting Business, Education and the Community” summits in Lake Placid. I found it interesting that the conversations around business/education partnerships were similar at both events.

At both summits, private-sector businesses made it clear that strong partnerships are needed to align employer needs with contemporary education. The common goal is to ensure that New York has a competitive workforce.

The challenge is that the word “partnership” means different things to different people. There was a lot of discussion about what makes a successful partnership. You can imagine that no two partnerships are identical. At one point, Johanna Duncan-Poitier, the SUNY’s senior vice chancellor for community colleges, asked me to be prepared to articulate what were the key elements of successful partnerships.

I came up with the following list:

1. Relationships and trust — you need to have not only “the right people” at the table, but preferably people with a history of working together. There needs to be a “shared risk/shared reward” mentality; neither side should carry the majority of the risk or reap the majority of the reward.

2. A well-defined purpose — members of the partnership need to know clearly what goal they need to achieve. Equally important is the need to have measurable outcomes.

I have to give my friend, John Masella, credit for the following elements. They were his mantra while working for the New York State Department of Labor. He used them in a different context, but they work here too.

3. Passion — the partners need to be enthusiastic and have a powerful and compelling desire to achieve their goal.

4. Commitment — the partners need to have an unwavering willingness to see their work through to a successful conclusion.

5. Willingness and patience — the partners need to have the willingness to listen actively, the patience to try to understand the other side’s point of view and the willingness and flexibility to change.

6. Fun — the partners need to celebrate their successes both small and large, as well as incremental progress toward success.

(My ex-wife would tell you that I exhibited none of those characteristics during our “partnership;” but I digress.)

All that is fine, but exactly how do businesses and community colleges mutually benefit from working together? There are many benefits, but I don’t have much space. I’ll highlight only a few.

The benefit for the business in the partnership is that community colleges are excellent at building talent pipelines. A business/community college partnership can help ensure that the college is providing its students with the correct set of 21st century skills necessary to meet the need for qualified employees. Community colleges offer businesses accredited training, traditional post-secondary training and training customized to meet a specific business’s needs.

Community colleges are adaptable and have some flexibility to change or broaden curricula as employer needs and the needs of a region change; and are uniquely positioned to serve both job seekers looking for good jobs and employers looking for qualified workers.

For the community colleges, business partners can provide the college with a firm grasp on a business’s real-time workforce needs. A strong partnership with business could increase the number of internship and mentorship opportunities for community-college students, great examples of how to bring the business community into the educational institutions.

Hopefully, a strong partnership with the business community would result in increased enrollments, improved retention, higher graduation rates and better job-placement rates.

Business/college partnerships aren’t really all that new. In 1997, Congress enacted “National Education Goals.” One goal was “every American business will be involved in strengthening the connection between business and education.”

Better late than never.

Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.