Getting Higher Education in Sync with Workforce: A Q&A with Steve Partridge, Vice President of Workforce and Economic Development at NOVA

Serving one of the fastest growing communities of the Washington, D.C. suburbs, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) has faced the challenge of helping local communities prepare for an influx of new jobs in health care, information technology, and cybersecurity.

As the vice president for workforce and economic development, Steve Partridge has been NOVA’s point man for all things workforce, ensuring alignment between the community college’s programs and the needs of the region’s major employers. By offering short-term certification programs, NOVA’s workforce development programs are helping today’s students gain skills for the world of work and helping career-switchers retool for jobs in growing industries.

Steve’s move to higher education sector comes from a long and wide-ranging career in local workforce development. Insights & Outlooks sat down with Steve to learn more about NOVA’s approach.

Insights & Outlooks: You have a unique story as a workforce development leader who landed in higher education. What were some of the surprising things you learned through this transition?

Steve Partridge: One of the biggest surprises was the slower pace of change in higher education, compared to other fields. This slowness actually originated by design, to ensure that changes to programs and degrees had broad applications in society. However, our economy now moves at a much faster pace. The fast pace is forcing educational institutions to respond more quickly and frequently to economic needs—or otherwise risk falling behind and losing enrollment. To stay ahead of the curve, educational institutions must constantly engage with employers to understand the skills, competencies, and abilities students need in order to get hired.

Insights & Outlooks: There’s a perception that has taken root that higher education and workforce systems are operating disconnected from each other. Is that perception fair or unfair and how can these two systems work together to drive better outcomes for today’s students and employers?

Steve Partridge: I do believe that higher education and workforce systems have been out of sync in the past, but alignment is starting to occur. For years, the workforce system spoke with employers about the skills gap and the skills new hires needed to be successful—but higher education was often not involved in these conversations. As employers continue to struggle to find qualified workers, they have been more open to talking with higher education about their employment needs. For years, the public workforce system measured its success by employment outcomes. Higher education, on the other hand, measured success by student completion. But completion by itself is not what students or policymakers really care about. Ultimately, helping students get jobs in their areas of study is the goal, and more frequent engagement with local employers helps higher education achieve that goal.

Insights & Outlooks: What are some of the ways that NOVA is working to align its programming with employer demand across the region?

Steve Partridge: One of the biggest changes we made was investing in the tools to understand our local labor market. This not only means we subscribe to labor market databases and tools, but we also invest in people. We now have two full-time labor market analysts that help our leadership, faculty, and students understand the skills, competencies, and credentials that are valued by local employers. But even though we are armed with good data, it’s important that we validate our findings with local employers before launching a new program or advising students about degrees or credentials.

Insights & Outlooks: If you had one request for federal policymakers in terms of promoting stronger connections between higher education and workforce, what would it be?

Steve Partridge: I think there are two changes that would build stronger connections between higher education and the workforce. The first is improving employment outcomes data, which includes requiring employers to report standard occupational codes (SOC), so we could match wage data and job code data for outcomes. I’d also make a strong case for short-term Pell funding (with the right protections) to ensure stackability of short-term programs with degree programs.

Insights & Outlooks: What’s one book, publication or podcast that inspires your work?

Steve Partridge: It’s difficult to choose just one book, but I’ll say The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation by Darrell West. This book is a great overview of the types of issues that education and workforce policymakers need to start considering. For example, which skills and competencies will be automated in the future, and how can we prepare tomorrow’s workforce for these changes?