Building Strong Community College Industry Partnerships in Rural Settings

By Kate Michaels, May 31, 2024

Some of the most dynamic and responsive industry partnerships are developed between rural community colleges and local employers. When colleges, employers, and communities work together to create these place-based opportunities, they can develop workforce education and training programs and career pathways that put students on a path to good jobs, meet the workforce needs of local employers, and improve the economic prosperity of rural communities.

National Skills Coalition’s recently published report, College and Career Possibilities Rooted in Place explores how rural industry partnerships create place-based pathways and opportunity, the key factors that make for strong, effective partnerships, and how state and local policymakers, officials, and administrators can support rural community college and industry partnerships.

Earlier this month, National Skills Coalition brought together more than 100 community college, state, and workforce and education leaders in a virtual learning event to share NSC’s research, hear from several community college leaders highlighted in the report, and participate in discussions with peers across more than 25 states. Part of NSC’s Expanding College & Career Possibilities (ECCP) initiative, the event aimed to support peer learning, knowledge sharing, action taking, and policy change across states with the goal of increasing college affordability, holistic supports, and completion of quality non-degree credentials that offer pathways to quality careers and further education.

Rural colleges as engines of economic mobility

While there is no one definition of a “rural” context, one commonality is that rural colleges serve as engines of economic opportunity for their communities, building industry partnerships that benefit rural learners and employers alike. Leaders from three community colleges highlighted in the report underscored this reality in a panel discussion during the learning event by providing an overview of their unique contexts, sharing examples of their partnerships across industries, and reflecting on the strategies that have helped build strong allyship for rural communities.

  • Charles Collins, the Executive Director of Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce, shared Maine’s strategic focus on jobs to support the transition to the green economy, which requires supporting partnerships to ramp up electricians to meet demand related to solar farms, a growing wind energy initiative, EV tech training, and more.
  • Nicole DuBose, Director of Workforce Development at Shelton State Community College, described Shelton State’s partnership with Bibb Medical Center which started small with a $15,000 worker training grant then opened to dual enrollment, expanded into workforce training, and now has a registered apprenticeship for Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs).
  • Jacque Goodman, Vice President of Business and Community Solutions at Iowa Valley Community College District, highlighted a partnership with a large local employer, Lennox Industries, to help them provide training for their Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining and high-tech welding apprenticeship programs and graduate apprentices from the program.

Policy, funding, and systems considerations

From the report, panel conversation, and group discussions, several key themes emerged about the policies, programs, and practices that have been most impactful in advancing community college and industry partnerships across local settings. These takeaways are guiding National Skills Coalition’s continued work with states to advocate for policies that prioritize rural voices and expand support for rural community college industry partnerships.

  1. Support the full scope of student needs. Advocate for and invest in the full spectrum of worker and learner needs, including transportation, childcare, affordable housing, and healthcare. Supporting students effectively requires building community partnerships across these policy areas and stacking resources with partners to enhance the ability of learners to succeed. Nicole DuBose highlighted how Alabama focuses on a “two generation model,” that works to serve current students but also provides supports for their children, recognizing that these investments have returns for both current and future generations. To fully meet students’ needs, rural regions need sustained investments in holistic support systems and infrastructure that enable working families to access postsecondary pathways and good jobs.
  2. Support and sustain rural community college and industry partnerships. Rural colleges need dedicated and sustained funding earmarked to support industry partnership efforts. Rural community colleges rely on aligning a constellation of policies and systems and braiding a mix of public and private resources funding to support their industry partnerships and the resultant programs and services. Charles Collins described how the Maine Community College System does this by connecting existing investments such as the Maine Quality Center program state investments, federal grants such as the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan funds, and private foundation investments to support their programs. While braiding funds from multiple sources can be effective, colleges should not have to rely on time-limited federal grants or one-time state surpluses to develop and sustain strong industry partnerships.

  3. Start small and use momentum to expand partnerships. Starting somewhere, even with small investments, can lay the groundwork for statewide support and larger investments. For example, the Iowa Skilled Worker and Job Creation fund is a pivotal policy that has been maintained for more than a decade and continues to support Iowa colleges’ partnership activities. Alabama, too, has several incumbent worker training programs that help incentivize college-industry partnerships. These programs have often spurred larger workforce training models, as stories of success have led to statewide momentum and expansion.

  4. Make investments that bring employers and businesses to the table. The availability of funding helps bring employers to the table and incentivizes strong partnerships. For example, in Arkansas, promoting state funding opportunities such as through the Arkansas Office of Skills Development Training Grants has increased business partnerships with community colleges. From there, advocates can build on stories of success to encourage states to expand these investments and partnerships, strengthening pathways and opportunities for students.

  5. Build strong partnerships and buy-in to garner legislative support. Jacque Goodman credits much of their success building community college industry partnerships in Iowa to the strong legislative advocacy that helps build and secure funding. Rural community colleges are driven by their community and have a deep understanding of and commitment to advocating for local needs. This community connection has helped in getting the funding to do the work, partner with businesses, and tell the story about these partnerships. Alabama, too, is seeing unprecedented support for workforce needs from the state, resulting in strong collaboration and partnerships. And Maine is guided by the Governor’s strategic plan for workforce development and the benefits of a small and communal state environment to strengthen these relationships.

Meeting the moment

Rural community colleges are meeting the moment and using the momentum of early wins to grow their programs, garner additional buy in, and leverage the current policy environment. As Nicole DuBose explained, “It’s the best time to be in workforce. Ten years ago, we didn’t have the ample funding opportunities that we have now.” As rural community colleges continue to drive economic mobility, advocating for a set of policies that allow them to build and expand industry partnerships will be more important than ever.

For more Making College Work updates and information on our Expanding College and Career Possibilities (ECCP) initiative and related efforts, follow our Making College Work Campaign to receive the newsletter and updates. For questions or to learn more, reach out to Lindsey Reichlin Cruse at