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Chambers of Commerce: Unlikely, but effective champions of education success

This is adapted from our Lumina Foundation podcast, “Today’s Student / Tomorrow’s Talent.” Click the video below to see the show, or if you’re on the go, catch us on iTunes or wherever audio podcasts are found. To see more episodes, please go to the show’s website.

When we talk about the roles that businesses and higher education institutions play in preparing people for the world of work, rarely do we discuss the influence that chambers of commerce can have in that vital, shared effort.


But as my guests on the 17th episode of the Lumina Foundation podcast “Today’s Students/Tomorrow’s Talent” told me, chambers of commerce can do a lot of good to promote policies that can be beneficial to educators and employers – not to mention the students who ultimately fill those jobs.

David Rattray, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, and Paola Santana, strategy officer for state policy at Lumina (and a former member of the Los Angeles chamber’s staff), said chambers can play a unique role in helping improve postsecondary education.

“Chambers are in a great position to aggregate demand, and to organize demand, for today’s jobs and tomorrow’s jobs,” Rattray said.

For example, about a decade ago, chambers of commerce in California recognized that the state’s community colleges were woefully underfunded and not producing the well-educated workforce that businesses needed. So they pushed for more money for student success, and “that led to a tremendous surge of funding,” Rattray said. The chambers then got behind a successful effort to get the legislature to increase aid for the Cal State university system.

The Los Angeles chamber also helped convince legislators to support the California Dream Act, which allows students who want to apply for state financial aid to attend eligible California colleges, universities and career education programs.

The goal “is to activate the business community so they are engaged in improving postsecondary education, cradle to career, building bridges between the business community and education,” Rattray said. “Activating the political and policy arm of chambers in an effective way to influence state and federal higher ed policy has been very effective.”

Santana, who previously led the Los Angeles chamber’s college access and success portfolio, said chambers of commerce can educate the business community on what’s happening in higher ed, on trends in education and workforce development, and on the challenges that students face. The chamber can be an educator, translator, convener, and advocate.

Chambers also can lead the effort to bridge the racial divide and push for equity in hiring. Rattray said his organization has worked to educate employers about incarceration and fair-chance hiring by bringing business people to the county jail for conversations.

“When our board members sat in small groups and found out who they were as people and asked about their dreams of what they wanted to do, they suddenly met people,” he said. “They went beyond their stereotype.”

Rattray said the world of higher education looks byzantine to business people. But representatives from both areas should sit down and talk. “Their world is a world you can relate to and can partner with,” he said.

And that’s where chambers of commerce can be incredibly useful.

“Leveraging the power of a chamber,” Santana said, “is definitely a worthwhile investment.”

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Tracy Chen
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