Innovative ways to keep your partnership moving

This blog is part of a series highlighting partnerships between community colleges and city and business resources and breaking down the important work in relationship-building that helps support students and workers of color through the college and career pipeline. 

We know how important partnerships are between community colleges, employers, and other community stakeholders and how it’s equally as important that they’re all working toward a common goal. There’s a third piece, too: The importance of communication and receiving feedback from your partners. While these steps are vital to your success, there may often be circumstances that can affect partnerships. For example, staff transitions, changes in strategic plans, and lack of funding can all impact the success and longevity of your partnerships.  

Let’s explore some innovative ways that groups maintain and sustain strong partnerships that last year after year.

One innovative way to strengthen, maintain, and formalize partnerships is through a community benefits agreement (CBA). A CBA is a formal agreement between an employer and community groups that prioritizes local workers and gives them employment rights and additional benefits that support their career in the industry. Jobs to Move America (JMA) is a national policy center concentrating on racial and economic justice and community organizing to impact corporate behavior and empower workers. JMA recently reached an agreement with the largest bus manufacturer in the country, New Flyer of America Inc., to create a CBA to invest in and support the communities where New Flyer is located. This CBA will impact New Flyer facilities in Anniston, Ala., and Ontario, Calif., and will require 40 percent of new hires and 20 percent of promotions at each facility to be underrepresented workers, including Black workers, women, justice-impacted individuals, and veterans. JMA will also partner with local community colleges to create a pipeline for individuals to receive training and credentials that can lead them to a career at New Flyer.

“CBAs go a step above contracts with public agencies,” JMA California Director Hector Huezo says. “They are more formalized and can be specific about [hiring] from populations that public agencies can’t.”

“It’s also crucial to educate employers,” adds Tony Christon-Walker, JMA’s Alabama Workforce Equity Coordinator. He notes that sometimes employers are unaware of how underrepresented many people are in their facilities.

“CBAs are a tool to get impacted people to have a seat at the table, become part of recruitment processes, and exercise their democratic muscle,” Huezo notes. While a CBA has been successful for JMA and a large employer like New Flyer, formalized agreements where workers and community groups are part of training and recruitment decisions are other ways companies can partner with communities for more equitable hiring practices.

The mayor of Elyria, Ohio, along with residents and local employers, partnered with Lorain County Community College to create the Elyria Skill City Promise. The program focuses on reskilling and upskilling Elyria residents through short-term credential programs in business, health care, information technology, computer science, and manufacturing. The city created a restricted fund to provide last-dollar scholarships to Elyria residents enrolled in the promise program with the goal of training 2,025 residents by 2025. It’s a promising example of a city that has strategically partnered with its local community college to invest in the upskilling of its greatest asset: residents. Through this strategic collaboration, Lorain County Community College is building programs and establishing partnerships in hopes of outlasting policy change or staff transition.

The National Skills Coalition (NSC) is engaging in a different type of partnership, this time through its Career Pathways SNAP E&T Project. NSC provides technical assistance to teams from Arizona, Connecticut, Michigan, New Mexico, and Virginia to build out or expand SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) programs through community colleges. SNAP E&T is a program that offers funding to states to provide employment, training, and supportive services to individuals who receive SNAP benefits. States can harness SNAP E&T funding through partnerships among state human service agencies, community colleges, nonprofit organizations, and other workforce partners to connect adults with education and training opportunities that increase the completion of college credentials that could lead to high-paying careers.

SNAP E&T can also provide funding for holistic support services while in the program, supporting costs like childcare, transportation, or books to close resource gaps. Despite the benefits of this program, there is a negative stigma that can come with public benefits, which can often deter people from utilizing it. Community colleges, state agencies, and other advocates should work closely with policymakers to share success stories and dismantle stereotypes to normalize benefit access and increase awareness of these programs’ life-changing power.

“Policy leaders need to be at the table,” NSC State Strategies Director Kate Kinder says.

She recommends bringing employers, students, and community colleges to legislators at the local and state levels to help them see the real-life students impacted by the policies they work to pass and ensure those affected by the issues and closest to the work are shaping the solutions.

Finally, Virginia’s new infrastructure academy is another example of a state-led initiative with partnerships at the forefront. The Virginia Infrastructure Academy (VIA) is a collaborative project with community colleges across the state to partner with employers in the road construction, transportation, wind and solar energy, and high-speed broadband industries. The initiative, led by the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), will create new or expand existing programs at the colleges to prepare students to enter those lucrative fields. Many of these training programs will culminate in short-term credentials, and many won’t qualify for federal financial aid due to the short program length. However, Virginia has been a leader in establishing the FastForward program which covers two-thirds of the tuition cost in short-term programs offered at state community colleges. Since 2016, students have earned more than 32,000 credentials and have seen an average of a 55 percent increase in their wages. Like the SNAP E&T program, many are adult students, and more than 40 percent are minorities.

These are just a few examples of how states, cities, community colleges, and employers work together to ensure the work to create partnerships doesn’t end when a staff member transitions to a new role or designated funding runs out. These programs highlight the importance of intentionally building funding and policy strategies to sustain the partnership long after its inception.

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