Strategies for engaging employers

Who's at your table? How to engage business leaders in your city
Who's at your table? How to engage business leaders in your city - Courtesy CEOs for Cities
What does a person get out a college degree? 
The ability to think, read, and write critically? Advanced knowledge and skill in a specialized discipline? Personal fulfillment and growth?
Sure. But also, how about a job? 
According to a 2011 survey from the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of Americans believe that the primary purpose of a college education is to prepare students for work. In some ways, this reflects reality: unemployment is significantly lower among college graduates than it is among those who hold only a high school degree. (As of March 2013, the unemployment rate was 3.8 percent for those holding a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 7.6 percent for those with a high school diploma but no post-secondary education).
Meanwhile, America's employers complain that they struggle to find the talent they need. A recent special report from The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace found that 53 percent of U.S. employers surveyed said it was "difficult" (42 percent) or "very difficult" (11 percent) to find qualified talent. Hence what's commonly known as the skills gap: We're facing high unemployment rates even while thousands of jobs go unfilled. 
This is why it makes sense for cities to engage employers in the quest to improve college attainment rates, and for the business community to be eager champions of education. College attainment translates to more prosperous citizens and more prosperous cities. It also means a better talent pool for businesses -- and ultimately a more competitive regional economy, as existing companies grow and new companies take root in areas with large, educated workforces.
What can you do to get your business partners more involved in Talent Dividend efforts? We talked to leaders in three cities with successful strategies. The key: Get to businesses where they are, and let them lead. 
Grand Rapids: CEOs lead the way to systemic change 
Under the banner of Talent 2025, Grand Rapids and the 13-county West Michigan region aim to become a top 20 talent region globally by 2025 with 64 percent of residents holding a post-secondary credential or degree.
The heart of the work is the CEO Council, a summit of more than 60 CEOs representing 75,000 employees in West Michigan. The Council's primary job is to illuminate, evaluate, and advocate, says Kevin Stotts, President of Talent 2025: that is, to illuminate performance gaps in the talent system, evaluate potential solutions, then advocate for practices that work.
Several working groups address specific issues within the pipeline, including early childhood, higher education, and adult workforce training. But the Council is starting to see that everything is truly connected.
"These parts of the system are interrelated," Stotts says. "Our HR leaders working group is directly connecting to our workforce development group and our higher ed group. If we can start connecting these issues and breaking down these silos, that's where the real change occurs."
Talent 2025 has influenced state policy on early childhood initiatives; thanks to advocacy from the CEO Council, legislation is moving forward to create a common quality metric for preschools. The CEOs have also made strides in connecting with the region's higher education leaders and starting a conversation about student success and career pathways.
"What have found is that education wants that engagement. They're saying: Tell us what you need: What's the knowledge neccessary? What's the skill? That data really helps the educators align curriculum, show pathways and opportunities," Stotts says.
Stott's advice to cities who want to get business leaders more involved in Talent Dividend efforts? Encourage them to take a leading role in your work.
"The business community has to be directly engaged in these conversations," Stotts says. "They can't be sitting on the sidelines waiting for results. That's what has led to these challenges across the country -- businesses have left this to K-12 and higher ed."
A results-based approach will help business leaders feel that their time is valued and their work is making a difference, Stotts adds.
"You can't have a meeting just to have a meeting -- you have to have next steps or outcomes. If there's no direct value or impact, [CEOs] will not participate," he says. "That's beneficial to everyone. It keeps the entire process honest." 
St. Louis: Whose table? 
Talent Dividend efforts in St. Louis are led by the St. Louis Regional Chamber. Their goal is to lift St. Louis into the Top 10 metro areas for college attainment by 2025. (Currently the St. Louis metro area ranks 14th nationally.) That means achieving about 75,000 degrees. 
A small regional Talent Council, comprised of 18 members who are primarily senior HR or talent officers from the region's major employers, leads the way. They focus on working adults with some college but no degree, a niche where not much outreach had been done in the past.
Above all, the Chamber's work on talent advances a fundamental need: a regional workforce that is prepared to work, equipped to perform, and positioned to advance. That ambitious equation requires appropriate education and experience. 
"It's a big difference from the old industrial model of education, where you went through school and then you were ready to go," says Blair Forlaw, Vice President for Talent Strategy for the St. Louis Regional Chamber. "Now it has to be school in some form, learning in some form, documented by credentials and the experience on your resume." 
On May 2, the Chamber will host a Regional Talent Summit, where St. Louis CEOs will discuss the economic imperative for higher education and leaders from Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland will discuss their own experiences in collaboration.
The region's talent strategy targets a few industry sectors: health sciences and services, financial and information services, and sustainable technology. Pathways to careers in each of these sectors will be discussed at the summit. 
Forlaw admits that the agenda for the summit is "a little business-heavy -- that's the opposite problem that most regions have. [But] the good thing about the Talent Council is that it is a small group. They've been working on this issue for a long time and they're convinced in their heads and hearts that this is important." 
If you're interested in engaging employers in your region's educational attainment efforts, recognize that businesses are inherently engaged in these issues already, Forlaw says.
"The one thing that really raises a red flag for me is when I hear people say, We've got to get business to the table," Forlaw says. "Business is already at the table. Business has been talking about talent, development, management, skills, competency models and all of those things for a long, long time. … The challenge for educators and civic groups is to find out how they can sit at that table that business has already set. When you do that, you get a different kind of conversation." 
Louisville: Helping employers tap their own talent  
Louisville's Talent Dividend initiative, 55,000 Degrees, is a regional partnership between higher ed, K-12, foundations, community-based organizations, and the business community.
A signature employer engagement effort is Degrees at Work. Thirty companies have partnered with the Greater Louisville Chamber to help identify employees that may be interested in completing a college degree. The program's goal is for 3500 employees to finish a degree by 2014 -- 15,000 by 2020.
"Our message to company CEOs has been: This is good business for your company and these are the resources we have available," says Kathy Zandona, Vice President of Education for the Greater Louisville Chamber. 
One role model in the business community has been Universal Woods, a locally-owned manufacturing company that employs over 100 people and offers a 100 percent tuition reimbursement program. CEO Paul Neumann's commitment to the value of lifelong learning has led to at least a few of the company's employees completing a degree.
These gains will be incremental: in a company where 40 employees are interested in going back to school, 25 will come to an informational session, 10 may connect to a college liaison. Fewer still will re-enroll. That makes it tough to prove ROI to a skeptical business leader, so the Greater Louisville Chamber's strategy has been to focus on soft data -- education as an antidote to high turnover, for example. 
But there's more to it than that. After all, there's a reason Louisville has decided to focus on degrees rather than percentage points. 
"It really is about one degree at a time," Zandona says. 
Louisville has learned a lot since launching their effort -- how to adapt when things change or don't work; when to use available resources instead of reinventing the wheel. But one of the biggest lessons has been the importance of telling a story. 
"We're telling a story to CEOs. We're telling a story to high school kids. We're telling a story to college students that at one time were really clear about what they're doing and no longer are," she says. "The story is that mom or dad standing on that stage after missing kids soccer games and who knows what else, and has done more for themselves and their families than they even know. We need 55,000 of those people." 

Amy Elliott Bragg is the editor of Talent Dividend Network. 
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