Building the New Workforce Through Business and Community College Partnerships

by Jan 25, 2017Talent

Beth McCormick

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Manager, Recruiting and Diversity, Alameda County Workforce Development Board, East Bay Economic Development Board


Filling Middle-Skill Gaps

After almost 20 years of recruiting for tech in the Bay Area, chasing top scientists and engineers for startups and most recently a national laboratory, I never paid much attention to recruiting technicians and what is known as middle-skilled workers.

A few years ago, I had a wake-up call after analyzing our workforce vulnerabilities. We projected that of our 800 technicians, close to 60% were over 50 years old! We had been hiring experienced techs for years and only about 10 to 20 new grads in recent years.  These predictions meant we should be hiring close to 100 techs a year just to sustain our current FTE levels. Since most of the tech programs at community colleges were disbanded during the “great recession,” we were recruiting from schools across the country with little success. After all, why would someone in Iowa making $60K a year move to California for $70K a year with our housing prices?

This isn’t just the lab’s problem, but a national problem.

69% of HR executives say their inability to attract and retain middle-skills talent frequently affects their firm’s performance (Harvard Business School on US Competitiveness Nov 2014)

Technology has changed our industrial processes significantly over the last 20-years, and companies are starting to bring back their outsourced manufacturing. In December, the White House signed a $10M bill for the DOD to start retraining the American workforce on advanced manufacturing.

Companies involved in manufacturing need a middle workforce of technicians that know how to program control systems which run the robotic arms assembling products or sorting parts. Steel-making no longer has dark smokestacks and hot production rooms, but controlled manufacturing systems full of sensors and controllers.

IT specialists no longer just set up desktops and run network cable. These skilled workers need to know how to use all the newest systems from Apple, Cisco and Microsoft (to name just a few), as well as understand cyber security issues with apps and new programs.

All this to say that we are in a perfect place and time to stand up business and community college partnerships.  There is evidence of businesses coming together by sector across the country to work with clusters of community colleges. In California, the Department of Education has over $500M available in grants for community colleges willing to retool programs based on employer workforce needs. The National Science Foundation is offering $16M in grants in 2017 for companies and colleges that develop nationally expanding programs. Some of the largest foundations in the country such as Helmsley and Bloomberg are looking to invest in these partnerships.

In the Midwest, where manufacturing is king, they have already made the jump to community partnerships. One example, Kentucky Community Technical College started working with an auto manufacturer back in the early 2000’s to develop a new technician program supplying technical talent to the automotive industry. This program has expanded to 12 community colleges and 18 automotive manufacturers in eight states!

I became interested in similar programs after joining the Alameda Workforce Development board in 2014. I what shocked to learn that 85% of students entering community colleges are at eighth-grade math levels!

To address the math challenge at community colleges, NASA developed an accelerated program to help students catch up in math so they could enter STEM education programs. Launching from their expertise, I started a program to address our laboratory’s technician needs with a local community college. We wanted to hire vets but with the average veteran entering community college at eighth-grade math our new technician program needed students to be calculus ready after one year. The NASA accelerated math program would get us to where we needed to be and it was achievable by the students. This new math program combined with a cohort learning model and a support specialist has proven an 80% retention rate in our two-year program.

First Graduating Class of Veterans in Mechanical Tech, Las Positas College 2016


Developing these new programs is not easy.

First, you need a commitment from one or more community colleges. The deans and college presidents may be on board but it’s a challenge to gain the support of the faculty who already are struggling to keep ahead of their workload. Many colleges are short staffed, especially for faculty teaching Computer Science and Engineering courses.

Second, although most schools are looking to attract more students, they are also caught in a vicious funding cycle. Which comes first? New students, or new curriculums and classrooms?  If the school is not involved in grants and workforce development boards, they may not know how to finesse the funding. Working with industry requires new curriculum development and approvals for A.S. degrees that may not exist. The approval process for changes to curriculum can take years to get from the state Department of Education.

Lastly, this is a huge commitment for companies. We must become partners with the community colleges, advising on curriculum and committing to host students for internships, co-ops and other mentoring programs. It takes commitment from our company presidents down to the technician-level supervisors. You may need to provide equipment to the community college and even classrooms. The Human Resource department usually participates in the soft skill development of students offering training on campus.

Why do anything?

Although the investments are large, the long term pay-off to employers is substantial.

Here are just a few of the benefits I’ve experienced from my community program.

1. Retention:

A. Community college students want to work local. Many students have families.

B. As employees, they have gratitude to employers that gave them a chance to succeed. Thus, they stay with you!

2. Attraction:

Community colleges begin attracting students from other communities because they have programs that promise high paying jobs and employment in two years.

3. Economic Growth:

The local economy benefits. Other employers benefit as they can take advantage of this newly trained workforce. This includes our supply chain.

4. Reduced cost of hire. No relocation costs.

5. Employee Training:

Community college programs can retrain your existing workforce.

6. Diversity:

Community colleges have the diversity we want as employers. Work with community colleges in nearby areas that draw from the local diverse population.

As a member of the Future of Talent for many years, we’ve predicted the need for employers to create better partnerships with educators to meet the needs of the new economy. We are developing employment streams for those that are not in the “main stream.”  Special thanks to Kevin Wheeler’s futuristic workforce visions!


Get HR Trends from Kevin Wheeler in Your Inbox Every Tuesday

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This