12 Dec 2022

The Partnership Imperative: Community Colleges, Employers, and America’s Chronic Skills Gap

America’s middle-skills talent pipeline needs a reboot. New research on the community college-employer partnership points to urgently needed changes.

BOSTON—Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), today released “The Partnership Imperative: Community Colleges, Employers, and America's Chronic Skills Gap,” a report that examines the state of collaboration between community colleges and business leaders and calls on employers to more actively partner with educators.

Educators and employers are failing to meet the challenge: how to equip enough workers with the skills needed to keep the U.S. economy competitive and fill the millions of vacant positions. Employers complain they cannot find the talent they need—in terms of quantity, quality, and diversity—and critical middle-skills positions go unfilled. At the same time, many students emerge from the community college system unable to find employment in their field of study or at a living wage. Educators struggle to engage employers—in curriculum development; information sharing on fast-changing technical and foundational skills requirements for middle-skills positions; and more.

In order to diagnose the problem, the Project on Managing the Future of Work launched a multiyear, multi-method research initiative combining background research and interviews with community college leaders and business executives across the country. The Project then partnered with AACC to conduct the first-ever exhaustive survey on the state and trajectory of the partnership between educators and employers, based on a framework of more than 40 concrete actions designed to build a work-ready workforce. There are actions for educators (e.g., developing standards for what skills and knowledge students can expect to acquire in classes) and employers (e.g., offering class projects that mimic real-world work for community college courses; donating or leasing equipment or license software to community colleges).

Key findings:

  • 93% OF EDUCATORS gave employers a “B” grade or lower on their level of collaboration with community colleges. By contrast, 28% of employers gave themselves an “A” grade.
  • 80% OF EDUCATORS agreed with the statement, “My college is producing the work-ready graduates that employers need,” while only 62% of employers agreed that “Community colleges are producing the work-ready employees that my company needs.”
  • ONLY 11% OF EDUCATORS said that their local employers’ were willing to set hiring targets and only 10% said employers would offer job guarantees to students who completed a program.
  • 84% OF EMPLOYERS reported their organization hired community college graduates, yet As many as 47% of employers surveyed said it was more cost-effective to hire talent from the open market rather than invest in training new talent. Only 22% of employers disagreed.
  • JUST ONE IN FOUR EMPLOYERS reported that they were transparent in communicating their hiring needs to educators. Over 50% of business leaders could not assert that they knew for which skills they were hiring.
  • In order to repair the relationship and build a work-ready workforce, employers and educators must:

    1. PARTNER with each other to offer training and education that is aligned with industry needs by pursuing strategies to co-create college curriculum around relevant and in-demand technical skills, co-design program timelines to meet student and employers needs, and incorporate real-world and on-the job learning.
    2. ESTABLISH RELATIONSHIPS with each other that result in the recruitment and hiring of students and graduates by pursuing strategies to dedicate staff time toward partnership, create processes for hiring community college graduates, and develop recruiting and hiring commitments.
    3. MAKE SUPPLY AND DEMAND DECISIONS that are informed by the latest data and trends by pursuing strategies to collect and share data on the local supply and demand for talent, and build mechanisms to monitor and improve the talent pipeline.

    The actions in this framework, as well as the partnership playbook provided in each chapter of the report, illuminate a path forward for educators and employers.

    “The current state of collaboration is failing to meet today’s business needs and putting future competitiveness and prosperity at risk,” said Professor Joe Fuller, co-chair of the Project on Managing the Future of Work. “’The Partnership Imperative’ is a wake-up call for community college leaders and business executives to fix what’s broken and ensure better outcomes for students.”

    “Rebooting the system will require community college educators and business leaders to work more closely to ensure that training and education is relevant to industry, students are trained and recruited for jobs, and decisions are data-driven. ‘The Partnership Imperative’ provides a playbook to achieve these goals. It’s in business’ best interest to initiate such partnerships to ensure they get the work-force ready talent they need—as well as help students access jobs with decent wages,” said Manjari Raman, Project on Managing the Future of Work research director.

    “America’s community colleges are extraordinary providers of training and talent. AACC is proud to partner on ‘The Partnership Imperative’ to support community colleges and employers in advancing the promise of America’s workforce development system,” said Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of AACC.

    The report and an executive summary with key findings can be downloaded on the Managing the Future of Work website.


    Harvard Business School:
    Djenny Passe
    631 335 2909

    Manjari Raman

    American Association of Community Colleges:
    Dr. Martha Parham
    202 728 0200 x209


    As the voice of the nation’s community colleges, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), delivers educational and economic opportunity for more than 10 million diverse students in search of the American Dream. Uniquely dedicated to access and success for all students, AACC’s member colleges provide an on-ramp to degree attainment, skilled careers and family-supporting wages. Located in Washington, D.C., AACC advocates for these not-for-profit, public-serving institutions to ensure they have the resources and support they need to deliver on the mission of increasing economic mobility for all.


    Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work pursues research that business and policy leaders can put into action to navigate the complex, fast-changing nature of work. The Project’s current research areas focus on six forces that are redefining the nature of work in the United States as well as in many other advanced and emerging economies: technology trends like automation and artificial intelligence, contingent workforces and the gig economy, workforce demographics and the “care economy;” the middle-skills gap and worker investments, global talent access and utilization, and spatial tensions between leading urban centers and rural areas.


    Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 200 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and doctoral degrees, as well as more than 70 open enrollment Executive Education programs and 55 custom programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, HBS faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, shaping the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.