Being a Good Partner: How to Work With Employers in a Pandemic

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)November 19, 2020

Throughout my career, colleges and universities have looked for alternative revenue sources in tough times and almost always have included corporate partnerships in their efforts. But these tough times are like no other we have faced—with many employers in nearly as precarious times as some of our colleges and universities. So this may not be the right time to being expanding corporate outreach, right? Well, maybe not.

Scott Dolan of Excelsior college discusses reskilling, upskilling, corporate partnerships, and more
Scott Dolan, Excelsior College

Scott Dolan is dean of graduate studies at Excelsior College and he is a big believer in the development of corporate partnerships—not just as a revenue source, but also as a way to ensure that Excelsior’s programs (graduate programs included) meet the needs of both students and the organizations that will hire them.

Excelsior has a long history of serving working adults. In fact, it was founded to do so as Regents College. It was among the first institutions to develop online courses and programs, and the college has continuously evolved to meet the needs of busy working (and non-working) professionals. John Ebersole, its long-term president (and speaker at the first professional development conference I ever ran) was a passionate advocate and once said to me, “Higher education needs to meet adults where they are, not where we are.” This statement has stayed with me for 20 years.

I talked with Scott Dolan about how to proceed with corporate outreach today, what kind of structure you need to be successful, and what role institution can and should play in the ever more pressing upskilling and reskilling that our workforce (and prospective student base) needs in order to be successful. You can watch our conversation or read a transcript below.

Scott Dolan discusses corporate partnerships, reskilling and upskilling, and more in this episode of RNL@Home.

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Scott Jeffe (SJ): You’ve said that institutions that the institutions that are most successful with employer partnerships see this as a symbiotic relations—a “two-way street.” Why is that?

Scott Dolan: Institutions and employers have shared objectives and goalsnow more than ever. Our job at Excelsior College and all education providers is to serve our students. Excelsior predominantly serves working adult students who most often are looking to advance their careera promotion, a career change, a transition from military to civilian life. When you educate adults, you have to ensure that the learning environment leverages the work and life experience and expertise that they bring into the classroom. They also expect that they’re going to learn concepts and tools that are directly applicable to their real-world work contexts.

On the flip side, employers are looking for talent that meets their needs and requirements. So there’s this relationship between what we’re both trying to do. We’re helping students build their careers and we’re helping employers meet their goals with individuals who have the skills and competencies that will allow them to hit the ground running. So you see, this is very much a two-way street.

SJ: How do colleges and universities ensure that their programs are infused with these skills and competencies?

Scott Dolan: Institutions need to intentionally include a mix of technical and transferable soft and professional skills in their programsat all levels. Colleges and universities have been essential pipelines of talent for employers for a very long time. Regardless of what people may say to diminish the importance of a college degree in employment, a college degree remains a really important signal for hiring managers that a job candidate will be able to hit the ground running. Despite what we might read about employers saying they need students who are a better critical thinkers and problem solvers, the reality is we are still hiring college graduates and they make really good employees.

SJ: What are the primary challenges in the institution-employer ecosystem?

Scott Dolan: Despite the shared goals that we have, I think there are significant challenges for colleges and universities driven by technological innovation, major socio-demographic changes, and increasing globalization. All of those things are changing the way we work, the way we liveand need to change what we learn and the way we learn. We’re living and working longer than ever. All of this means that colleges and universities need to work with employers on efforts to up-skill and re-skill their workforce, so that we can help people keep up to date. Education is still the biggest driver of economic mobility, so this really is a shared objective with employers. We just need to start speaking the same language and working together on addressing the radical changes that we’re living through right now.

SJ: It seems it may be a hard time to try to solicit business with employers. What do institutions need to doin the middle of a pandemic and facing a recessionto be good partners with employers?

Scott Dolan: I think no matter the time period, the best employer-educator partnerships start with being on the same page about objectives and goals, taking time to understand and empathize with what each organization needs. Now, more than ever, institutions are dealing with significant changes to how to serve their students, and employers are dealing with similar but different challenges – first and foremost, how they keep our employees healthy and safe, and while doing so, how do they maintain productivity and stay competitive. This requires tough decisions involving radically restructuring of work, shifting to remote work, adopting new technologies and processes and implementing new policies. We have a lot to learn from each other.

This is where I think empathy is really important. Trying to understand the needs of the people that we are trying to partner with. And so I think checking in on existing partners, making sure that they’re okay, keeping in close communication with them, seeing if there are ways that we can assist or support is really important. As colleges and universities work out how to offer high quality instruction online we may be able to help employers with how to train employees to work remotely also.

SJ: Shifting gears here, let’s set aside the pandemic for a minute. What are best practices in terms of setting up a team to focus on employer relationships today?

Scott Dolan: You’ve got to have a specific entity or set of individuals dedicated to building and nurturing those relationshipsyou can’t “do it on the cheap.” You also need to figure out ways to ensure that the relationships are wider and deeper than even that dedicated entity, they need to extend throughout the institution. This allows you to sit at the table talking strategically at various levels of both organizations. Academic stakeholders need to be at that table so they can learn from employers what the market needs, which then helps guide curriculum development. On the flip side, we can start building coursework that is more workplace relevant, thereby ensuring we can help students get the skills and competencies that they need in order to get a job.

SJ: What is the greatest challenge to this “all-hands” approach to employer partnerships?

Scott Dolan: It’s really important that we be open-minded as there’s tension today about what the purpose of education is. Is it purely the pursuit of knowledge? Is it primarily vocational? Are there other aspects equally important? I’ve always thought that the nature of work is an important component of being a great citizen, it is a baseline for a healthy and productive life. I think that institutional stakeholders must understandand valuethat employers provide opportunities to our students just as much as we do, and for a longer time. As such, we need to be open-minded about their goals and objectives and needs. We need to set time aside to have those strategic conversations early on, and then continue to check on whether those objectives remain the same throughout the partnership.

SJ: At my first job we had a set of advisory panels, one for our adult student efforts and one for our community college efforts. This turned the “industry advisory panels” idea on its head because we had college leadership guiding our company’s outreach to them. In the 90’s I saw a lot of great industry advisory panels at the colleges with which we worked, but that seems to have gone out of style at many places. Is there a place for that today?

Scott Dolan: Absolutely. In some ways, we can (and should) take the relationship well beyond just advisory. We can work together to develop content and programming that will help students get jobs. This is where the reskilling and upskilling that everyone is talking about can “get real.” One of the criticisms we often get from employers is that colleges are not agile enough to really develop the just-in-time education that they need in specific skills or specific technologies. If we create those more long lastingand deeperrelationships and structures to support it, then you’re all at the table saying, “Hey, we’re going to work on this together.”

SJ: Lets talk about upskilling and reskilling. Has the pandemic changed with employers need?

Scott Dolan: I think there are some changes, but what really has changed is the acceleration of what is needed. We’re definitely hearing from employers that are looking traditional skills: leadership skills, human resources, management, talent management, training and development, critical thinking, and problem solving. But there is an uptick in employers saying they need even more technical skills that make sense as they cope with remote work, business transitions, etc.: information technology, how to use new programs and applications, cybersecurity, analytics. Distributed work is accelerating and this is driving many of these new skill gaps. How do you work remotely? How do you manage remotely? At the individual level, organizational level, and the team level the management of risk is becoming one of the “go to” “must have” skill areas. We’re also getting more requests for help with managing stress. I guess we can all relate to that!

SJ: What is the role of graduate education in upskilling/reskilling? Should graduate programs be infusing even more so skills training?

Scott Dolan: To me, it goes back to the fact that the economy is changing so rapidly, and that was happening before the pandemic. This is emblematic of this fourth industrial revolution we are living through. Whether it’s the mobile cloud, the amount of data that we have at our fingertips, the ability to analyze that data with the computing power, internet of things, AI machine learning, robotics, just on and on. All of this needs to be accessed by people at all levels, and so there is a definite need to ensure that graduate programs produce graduates who can capitalize on all the technological and other skills that are available today. I’ve noted many times that the people most often enrolling in these bootcamps and MOOCs are already highly educated. Many with graduate degrees. Some are enrolling in these instead of a master’s program because they know they can brush up skills and competencies in a shorter amount of time than it would take in a master’s program. This is something we need to keep acute track of, and address in our programs.

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About the Author

Scott Jeffe

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.

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