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Eric Dunker, Associate for Business Strategies, Associate Vice President and Dean: Business, Technology, and Workforce Partnerships, Arapahoe Community College

As our society becomes more diverse, businesses and communities have moral and economic reasons to create systems with talent equity outcomes across the educational and labor market continuum.

Higher education is rightly focused on educational equity, but this pandemic has demonstrated large disparities in the labor market that stems from a deep disequilibrium in our talent ecosystems. In order to achieve a more equitable and inclusive recovery, we must work to recalibrate these systems through transdisciplinary engagement.

According to a group tracking the recovery from Harvard and Brown Universities, employment rates for workers who made over $60k a year were only down 1% after one year into the pandemic, where rates were still down 28% for lower wage workers. As we’ve discussed in earlier blogs, this is a direct result of historical talent pipeline inequity.

Going ‘back to normal’ is not an option for a sustained recovery, we must build paths through our regional talent pipeline ecosystems to sustainable careers for all Americans.

So, what is the regional talent pipeline ecosystem and how can it better align in our recovery?

It starts with engagement.

Your regional talent pipeline ecosystem consists of k-12, higher education partners such as universities and community colleges, industry, community organizations, economic development agencies, and local government (workforce centers, etc). Each group is responsible for cultivating and investing in the regional talent ecosystem. Often, these groups work as separate entities and consequently miss opportunities to capture creative outcomes when working as a cohesive and collaborative group.

Talent equity work combines and convenes these efforts to ensure all entities work together and leverage collective strengths.

If our systems were better aligned, do you believe…

  • Communities of color could have more upward mobility and more potential for income equality?
  • We could reduce and stabilize the student loan debt crisis ($1.6 trillion and counting)?
  • We could solve the mismatch of skills and available jobs (6 million jobs remain unfilled even during the pandemic)?
  • We could create more meaningful, career-connected earn and learn opportunities for students that also provides a more diverse and representative talent pool for industry?

If your answer is yes, keep reading!

What can higher education do?

Higher education, along with workforce center partners, can play a unique role as local conveners of their regional talent ecosystem. In order to be truly demand driven, higher education must deeply understand the communities they serve and what strengths their partners in the talent ecosystem bring to the table in order to fill gaps in real time. This in turn can lead to more successful opportunities for grants and collaborations that can cultivate more resources and better programming addressing needs in a more responsive and nimble fashion.  

Conveners can invite key stakeholders to meetings to discuss regional talent pipeline issues in their communities.  Higher education can partner with k-12 and industry and co-create relevant career cluster pathways.

Partners can also co-create work-based learning opportunities that are proven to build more social capital and work ready skills.

Consider the following for your community:

  • Are industry partners in your region primarily consumers of the talent that the educational system cultivates, or are they active partners in co-producing these systems by investing in work-based learning?
  • What’s the role of government in incentivizing work-based learning from financial and infrastructure considerations?
  • How can k-12 and higher education foster more career connected learning by offering credit for work experience and program schedules that provide students the freedom and flexibility to earn and learn?

Convening the Talent Pipeline Continuum

Let’s explore a real-life community example where the goal was to change the paradigm of businesses as traditional consumers of talent to becoming co-producers and ultimately provide career-connected learning for every individual by engaging the entire regional talent pipeline ecosystem.  

The Sturm Collaboration Campus is a partnership between Arapahoe Community College, Colorado State University, the Douglas County School District, the Arapahoe/Douglas Workforce Center (AD WORKS), and local industry and is located in Castle Rock, Colo., situated 30 miles south of Denver in one of the fastest growing regions in the US. One of the first things we did with the community was create an industry-led talent pipeline strategy group called Talent Pipeline Douglas County with all partners in the ecosystem – the power of engagement.

The campus opened in the fall of 2019 and earned the economic development partnership of the year in Colorado. Co-creating robust work-based learning partnerships across the talent continuum is a core strategy of campus partners. The Sturm Collaboration Campus also earned a significant private philanthropic gift from the Sturm Family Foundation to invest directly in the partnership model that goes towards aligning the ecosystem.

Put Through the Pandemic-Induced Stress Test

The engagement model and partnerships were put to the test when COVID-19 forced overnight restrictions and significant disruption in the workforce ecosystem. Thankfully, these partnerships helped create a more engaged pandemic response with the community that spanned our entire region.

Here’s how it worked:

  • During Denver-south COVID-19 response meetings, it was clear there was a need for immediate programs to assist displaced workers to help pivot their careers and to provide programming to bridge the digital divide so displaced workers could upgrade their technological skills.
  • In a span of one month, our workforce center partner (AD Works), local government municipalities in Englewood and Centennial, and ACC partnered to co-create the Live, Learn, and Work local career bootcamp program that served over 90 displaced community members.
  • Our collaboration is also serving over 200 community members with a digital upskill bootcamp where participants receive a laptop in addition to upgrading their digital skillsets so they can be more competitive in a remote and tech enabled work environment.

These examples demonstrate that being demand-driven cannot happen in a vacuum of rhetorical good intensions. Our ability to pivot and meet real time needs was only possible due to the deep partnerships along the ecosystem.

Partnerships across the talent pipeline ecosystem must be cultivated, convened, and leveraged in communities for stakeholders to co-create relevant and rapid responses to community needs.

Working towards building an ecosystem of talent equity means identifying and filling immediate gaps such as the digital divide and creating longer-term in-depth career pathways alongside your engaged partners.

What’s Next?

Stay tuned for more blogs from Longview Engagement that will discuss the role of an engaged college/university/extension service in an equitable recovery, and we will discuss how this work can specifically lead to resources for investment in a more engaged infrastructure.

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About the Extension Foundation

The Extension Foundation was formed in 2006 by Extension Directors and Administrators. Today, the Foundation partners with Cooperative Extension through liaison roles and a formal plan of work with the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) to increase system capacity while providing programmatic services, and helping Extension programs scale and investigate new methods and models for implementing programs. The Foundation provides professional development to Cooperative Extension professionals and offers exclusive services to its members. In 2020 and 2021, the Extension Foundation has awarded 85% of its direct funding back to the Cooperative Extension System, 100% of funds are used to support Cooperative Extension initiatives. 

This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Agriculture Extension grant no. 2020-41595-30123 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and membership funding. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the content are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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