Your Next Great Hire Is Graduating From a Community College

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The post-COVID economy will demand practical skills and a diverse workforce, yet many companies struggle to find quality talent at the scale they need. Corporate recruiters return to the same universities year after year and still fall short of their hiring goals.

They may be looking in the wrong places. There is a labor pool of millions that goes largely unnoticed: the one-third of U.S. undergraduates who attend public two-year colleges.

Research reveals why hiring from community colleges offers employers broad benefits that reach beyond the bottom line. Because community college tuition is roughly one-third the cost of in-state tuition at public universities, students are spared larger debt and better represent underserved communities, where many talented people do not participate in the growing digital economy. Community college students are as diverse as the U.S. population, and recruiting from these institutions can help companies create workforces that more closely resemble their customers. For example, in 2019, 42 percent of underrepresented minority undergraduates in Indiana—and 52 percent of Black students—were enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College, the nation’s largest singly accredited statewide community college district. And such students are often high achievers: Among students with an “A” average in high school, 30 percent of African-American and Hispanic students attend community college, compared to 22 percent of white students, according to research from Georgetown University.

Despite the advantages of hiring from community colleges, challenges remain. There are three steps companies can take now to address these challenges, meet their recruiting goals and improve workforce diversity.

Overcome Bachelor’s Bias and Hire For Learnability

Managers and their recruiters often rely on outdated thinking that a bachelor’s degree is always required, or wrongly presume community college students don’t have the intellect or discipline of students pursuing a four-year degree.

These assumptions can be “poisonous,” says Garrett Moran, chairman of the Connecticut Governor’s Workforce Council.

“Employers exclude a bunch of people who have the skills and the aptitude but don’t have the credentials,” he said in an interview. “This is an equity issue, an opportunity issue, and the efficiency of the market is compromised.”

In a survey of 1,000 U.S. hiring managers conducted by Infosys Knowledge Institute, 75 percent said that finding people with adequate technical and digital skills was difficult. However, our research also found that companies more likely to hire employees with associate degrees were better positioned to meet their current and future talent needs. And studies such as the Dismissed by Degrees report from Harvard Business School show that students with associate degrees or non-degree credentials perform well.

The executives and academic leaders we interviewed said their recruiting approach is evolving from hiring for degrees to hiring for relevant skills combined with “learnability,” or a blend of aptitude and a desire to learn, which enables regular learning, unlearning and relearning as new subject areas emerge. The half-life of skills is shrinking rapidly, driving the need for more on-the-job experiential learning, and for lifelong learning.

Companies must rethink their bias against candidates without a four-year degree. Some jobs in fields like medicine, law and engineering truly require a bachelor’s or advanced degree. However, hiring managers should not set a B.A. or B.S. as a default. If a job currently requires a bachelor’s degree, ask why. Analyze the skills needed for that position and revise the requirements if possible.

Even if a bachelor’s degree is needed, determine whether it’s needed right now. Companies can hire employees with associate degrees and create a bachelor’s degree bridge program that offers employer investment and support to help workers earn additional credentials. Employees advance their careers, while employers get loyal and motivated workers.

Think Relationships, Not Just Recruitment

Local employers have an especially good reason to hire from community colleges. Many community college students have strong ties to the area and wish to remain there—an antidote to employee churn that managers dread. For example, at Ivy Tech Community College, 93 percent of graduates remain in Indiana.

But don’t just recruit at local community colleges—develop relationships. Community colleges seek partnerships with local companies to better understand the area job market. Community college advisory boards guide an institution’s program design to meet employer needs and grow talent pools.

When recruiting, HR departments need to prioritize community colleges for relevant jobs. A company shouldn’t ignore traditional universities, but should broaden its views about which institutions have the programs, skills, and outcomes suited to fill roles.

Companies should also customize training to accommodate associate degree holders. While community college students may have good course content in their classes, they may lack access to internships and other work experience opportunities. To address this, companies should provide internships and apprenticeships that include training on professional communication and critical thinking skills, mentoring and other fundamentals to help students build social capital.

Advocate to Integrate

Employers should advocate for statewide, strongly aligned community college systems. These structures are more effective than individual colleges working in isolation. One of the strengths of Indiana’s Ivy Tech is its ability to move the needle on the skills gap not just for a city or county, but for an entire state. The system researches what skills are needed and where, and then reallocates resources. For example, Ivy Tech is on track to provide 50,000 credentials for the 100,000 additional post-secondary credentialed workers Indiana needs each year, with most of those jobs paying above the state median wage. Data science and analyst jobs continue to be in demand despite COVID headwinds, and look to grow faster as the economy recovers.

Integration drives resource allocation efficiency as well. Leaders at Ivy Tech studied the Indiana job market and aligned the capacity of its 40 campus locations to local employer needs. Resources are continually shifted to programs where job demand outstripped supply, and for high-paying career paths.

Despite its national stature, the Indiana model is not common. Just 11 states had similar systems in 2018. Elsewhere, community college systems are locally based and occasionally affiliated with universities. However, the best ones are known for their close industry collaboration to mold educational programs and train workers. Connecticut is an example of a system in transition, as its officials plan to merge all their state colleges and universities into a single statewide system by 2023.

The case for hiring from community colleges is stronger than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced individuals and organizations to rethink how they operate and find new talent pathways. There is a growing consensus that after this crisis, the world should not return to the previous status quo. As they adapt to new realities, business leaders can use the promise of community colleges to achieve both their financial goals and aspirations that the workforce more closely resemble the diversity of our country.

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