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Seattle Colleges Show How Deep Employer Engagement Can Yield Unprecedented Returns for Community College Students

Anna Baldwin, Director of Workforce Projects for Seattle Colleges, had no idea that the colleges’ engagement with Seattle Children’s Hospital would yield $200,000 in scholarships for learners in their new Health IT/Epic Associate program. Epic is one of the largest health information technology systems, used primarily by large U.S. hospitals and health systems, to access, organize, store, and share electronic medical records. Seattle Children’s Hospital is looking to upskill its employees and engage individuals in the Seattle community who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, namely people from low-income households, immigrants, and residents of color.

Seattle Colleges is one of six community colleges and systems that is part of the the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund—CCGEF or the Fund, for short—to build and scale what we call “micro-pathways.” Micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials (21st century skills included) validated by employers that lead unemployed, displaced, and underpaid or low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.

For this work, we created an Employer Engagement Guidebook to support the Fund’s cohort of colleges and systems with practical strategies to deepen engagement with employers, including concrete examples from their colleagues across the cohort. Seattle Colleges, for instance, is working with a group of local employers who have committed to both hire learners at the start of the learner’s engagement in Seattle Colleges’ residential construction micro-pathway and assist with tuition, a practice being endorsed by the Master Builders Association of Washington. 

“It’s about momentum,“ states Baldwin. “By partnering with the local community college to create a diverse, skilled workforce pipeline, they are addressing multiple strategic priorities, which is an impactful way of using their philanthropic dollars. The more employers in the region see other employers spending their philanthropic dollars for talent development, the more likely they are to do the same.”

Seattle Colleges engages their employers using a menu of options, from light to medium to heavy touch. Light touch includes things like marketing to potential learners. Medium touch might involve providing guest speakers. Lastly, heavy touch would be engaging the employer as a full partner in developing curriculum and providing paid internships. Seattle Colleges has found that employers respond well to those choices. This approach corresponds to what we call a Ladder of Engagement, which we dive into on page 9 of our Employer Engagement Guidebook.


The Lab’s Ladder of Engagement for employer relationships, which we dive into on page 9 of our Employer Engagement Guidebook.


Below are five actionable ideas from our Employer Engagement Guidebook for community colleges looking to deepen their engagement with employers:

  1. Be creative and flexible: As was stated in the Seattle Colleges’ example, employers like to have options for how to engage, so be creative and flexible in what you have to offer. Some may be able to contribute in several ways and another may only be able to engage in one small way. Be appreciative of what each employer has to offer, especially now during the pandemic when most employers are stretched.
  2. Be clear about the commitment involved at each level of engagement: Provide concrete examples of what engagement can look like, such as how other employers have participated in the activities. Seattle Colleges was able to showcase their partnership with Kaiser Permanente as a model for how to engage with Seattle’s Children’s Hospital. 
  3. Ensure there are internal champions in place. Not only is it important for employers to have a champion(s), but the same is true for the institution. This makes it easier for employers to be engaged when they know exactly who they are working with at the college. Anna Baldwin has been that individual for Seattle Colleges’ new micro-pathways. 
  4. Show appreciation of the employer’s contributions: Take advantage of opportunities to highlight important employer contributions, such as including employer logos in marketing materials and mentioning them on your web site. See Seattle College’s Health IT scholarships page featuring Seattle Children’s Hospital and their logo.
  5. Periodically check in with the employer to see if adjustments are warranted: Instituting an open honest feedback loop helps employers feel more comfortable sharing if they have overcommitted. Thank them, and help the employer back down the ladder gracefully. Anna has worked to ensure her communication and feedback loop with her employers is consistent over time.


Seattle Colleges is thrilled with the level of engagement and support they have received from employers for their micro-pathways. It’s a win for the college, a win for the employers, and most importantly, a win for learners who now have access to financial support and new  job opportunities that support them in achieving their goals. 


This article is written by Valerie Taylor as part of a new mini publication series, Innovation Snapshots: Ideas in Action. This series dives into the many innovative ideas and models that we have co-designed with 135+ colleges and learning institutions to better center and support new majority learners in reaching their goals. Spotlighting our partners across different Lab-driven initiatives, each part of this series focuses on a process or framework and the resulting work of a different partner. Find the rest of the series here.

Learn more about the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund here, and follow the work on Twitter #CCGEF


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