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Spanning the Gap between Mission and Impact


After exploring the futures of several community college workforce education systems, a series of similarities emerged regarding the pursuit and achievement of mission. Among these programs, three dimensions of mission became apparent.

  1. Student-centric mission: Helping students develop the knowledge and skills needed to attain living-wage employment.
  2. Employer-centric mission: Connecting employers to adequately prepared workers.
  3. Community-centric mission: Supporting the region's communities in addressing emergent and relevant issues.

In this post, I focus on the first two dimensions: student- and employer-centric missions. For both, an important measure of success is the employment of graduates in living wage jobs in a field relevant to their education. 

The prospect of better employment opportunities is the singular most compelling value proposition of all workforce education programs. Curiously most programs have very little reliable data on graduate employment success. At best they have anecdotal data. Programs compelled to track graduate employment to because of accreditation requirements describe the data as “gold” because it:

  • strengthens the program’s value proposition,
  • provides insight to improve curricular quality, and
  • builds and maintains connections with graduates.

Beyond a lack of graduate employment data, there is another interesting dynamic embedded in the workforce education mission: most programs have little to no control over the employment of graduates. In a few rare instances, some workforce education programs operate business ventures that offer student employment experience, but these jobs are designed to be learning opportunities, not career employment.

The gap between pursuing and achieving a mission is captured in the “thirsty horse” proverb. If your mission is to keep a horse hydrated, you can make water accessible, make the horse aware of the water’s presence, and support the drinking process, but you “can’t make the horse drink the water.”

Workforce education programs invest considerable effort in being accessible, raising awareness, and supporting student success, but they can’t make a graduate apply for a job, and they can’t make an employer hire the graduate. Accomplishing the workforce education mission is out of the program's control. While plainly obvious, this dynamic underscores the importance of several best practices undertaken by workforce programs to "span this gap," for example:

  • Increasing experiential learning opportunities that expose students to the workplace and employers
  • Recruitment of employers to help provide feedback on student performance
  • Involvement of industry professionals in mock interviews and reviews of student resumes
  • Sponsoring events that provide formal and informal interaction between students, graduates, and employers
  • Collecting and sharing of relevant employment opportunities among graduates and graduating students

While efforts like these are showcased as best practices, they require continuous engagement with partners and employers and are often supported by faculty contributing their own time, energy, and resources. Because these gap-spanning activities make such a powerful difference between a good workforce program and one that is celebrated as innovative and excellent, increasing support and resources for faculty to engage with partners and employers is a valuable, mission-driven investment.

Analysis of the mission-impact gap reveals two opportunities for workforce education systems to improve:

  1. Develop sustainable and reliable approaches to collect, process, and apply graduate employment data. Approaches might include: a) incentives for program faculty to collect this data, b) institutional commitment of non-program staff to collect data, or c) innovative partnerships with employers through advisory committees to collect data.
  2. Fund and enable relevant gap-spanning activities designed to increase the possibility of graduate employment success.

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Thanks to S. Cane & T. Cox for comments.