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Carolina Cluster Initiative Focuses on Career Readiness and Employer Engagement

January 10, 2022 | By Kevin Gray

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TAGS: best practices, career development, career readiness, diversity and inclusion, nace insights,

Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
Spotlight for Recruiting Professionals

Learn More About the Carolina Cluster CPI During NACE’s HBCU Summit
Members of the Carolina Cluster will discuss its Career Pathways Initiative during NACE’s HBCU Summit, which will be held virtually on February 23. They will share their successes and discuss ways employers can demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through powerful partnerships. For more information about the HBCU Summit, which will be held in partnership with INROADS and is free for all HBCUs, see www.naceweb.org/hbcu-summit/index.html.  

The UNCF® Career Pathways Initiative (CPI) is a unique program designed to help select historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly Black institutions (PBIs) enhance the career readiness of their enrolled students. This competitive grant was made possible through funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc.

Among the 24 institutions selected, the UNCF awarded a $6 million grant to the Carolina Cluster, a consortium of three South Carolina HBCUs: Claflin University ($3.3 million), Benedict College ($1.5 million), and Voorhees College ($1.2 million). A portion of the Claflin University grant ($1.8 million) operates a jointly established state coordinating office (State Office) to support and monitor the cluster-related activities of the awarded institutions.

The Carolina Cluster’s grant proposal reflects a commitment to:

  • Strengthening career advising and mentoring;
  • Enhancing curricula; and
  • Supporting integrated co-curricular engagement.

“As part of CPI, the selected institutions developed a range of academic programs, student internships, industry partnerships, specialty certifications, and faculty development as they forged a new model for career readiness and designed and implemented programs to improve employment outcomes for graduates,” says Cathy Scarborough Franklin, executive director of the Carolina Cluster CPI Program.

“The Carolina Cluster is geographically situated to take advantage of statewide, regional, and national economic growth, such that Cluster’s students are job-ready upon graduation in this exceptionally competitive job market.”

Valeria Green, experiential learning director, says the member institutions’ similar missions, student populations, and proximity allows the Carolina Cluster to more efficiently and effectively leverage the resources of each institution to ensure that students are positioned to take advantage of the economic opportunities in South Carolina.

“Our ongoing charge is to integrate sustainable practices that improve how our academic departments and educational support units provide intentional and sustainable pathways to build 21st-century competencies, and how our graduates find and engage in meaningful employment in their desired career fields,” she says.

The Carolina Cluster uses the UNCF CPI’s three-pronged approach, which is designed to develop new and innovative methods to help students achieve success. This facilitates an increased number of students graduating in four years or less, with a reduced number of excess credits, and with 21st-century workforce skills employers in high-growth, high-paying industries in the Carolinas seek. 

The three-pronged approach involves:

  • Intentional guided pathways—Placing student success at the center of institutional operations by engaging students in their learning journey and ensuring that they get on, stay, and graduate from an academic pathway that facilitates personal and professional growth.
  • Curricular enhancements—A collaborative redesign of current curricula to streamline course and program offerings and embed 21st-century competencies in students’ learning outcomes.
  • Integrated co-curricular engagement—Integration of learning activities from outside the classroom with coursework that increases students’ skill development and competencies.

A consultant from Eduvators LLC, Marcy Drummond, worked with Carolina Cluster members’ faculty to establish pathways for their programs of study during a two-year period. In turn, faculty members partnered with Drummond to begin the process of:

  • Creating viable pathway frameworks;
  • Incorporating curricular/co-curricular learning integration; and
  • Developing CPI milestones designed to increase student success.

To engage employers, the Carolina Cluster established an executive advisory council (EAC) of more than 40 senior leaders from both the private and public sectors.

“The purpose of the council is to promote engagement between Carolina Cluster institutions and senior-level business and industry leaders of national, regional, and local employers,” Franklin says.

“These strategic relationships provide the Carolina Cluster members with a sounding board and with insights into employers’ workforce needs.”

The goals of the EAC are to deepen relationships between employers and Carolina Cluster member institutions, enhance members’ student preparation to help them enter into and succeed in the workforce, and have members’ students become the “obvious choice” for its employer partners.

“Our employer partners’ insights are used to direct future curricular decisions, with the goal to improve the professional readiness of Cluster members’ students,” Green adds.

Specifically, the EAC’s mandate is to support curriculum and program development by:

  • Advising Carolina Cluster members in the development and implementation of priorities, procedures, policies, and programming to improve the work readiness of members’ students;
  • Reviewing the relevance and competitiveness of Carolina Cluster members’ academic programs, sharing information about pre-hiring tests, assessments, and industry certifications; and
  • Providing feedback on curriculum-workforce alignment issues.

The Carolina Cluster also engages faculty and staff through its collaborative professional development programs, which are designed to invest in the Carolina Cluster’s faculty and staff capacity and capabilities to allow for more effective implementation of the CPI programs. Several of the professional development programs the Carolina Cluster has held are also available to partnering institutions.

In addition, the Carolina Cluster hosts collaborative student professional development, recruiting, and interviewing programs.

Green says the goal stated by the Carolina Cluster in its UNCF grant application was that, “The Cluster’s Regional Career Fair is a trailblazing initiative that to date has been the largest regional diversity recruiting event in the State of South Carolina sponsored jointly by HBCUs.”

The Carolina HBCU Career Talent Showcase includes students and alumni from the Cluster and invited students and faculty from other HBCUs in South Carolina, North Carolina, and East Central Georgia.

“By offering this joint career fair,” Green notes, “we have continued to experience a 15-20% increase in the number of participating employers and graduate and professional schools with a larger population of undergraduate students. The Cluster’s State Office works with the career development center at each site to advertise the Showcase, prepare and engage participating institutions, and recruit employers to the Showcase.”

Additionally, the State Office hosts the Carolina HBCU Professional Development Conference, which occurs at least 30 days before the Carolina HBCU Career Talent Showcase.

“This [conference] provides leadership panel discussions, professional development training, graduate and professional school admissions readiness, and resources inclusive of students and recent graduates of their programs,” Franklin notes.

Green adds that, “In addition, one-on-one support is provided for resume reviews, mock interviews, LinkedIn profile reviews, and effective networking techniques. Sessions are led by senior leaders of participating organizations and sponsors of the Carolina HBCU Career Talent Showcase, inclusive of the Cluster’s Executive Advisory Council.”

More than 450 organizations have participated in the Annual Carolina HBCU Career Talent Showcase during the past three years, with more than 3,500 students, alumni, faculty, and leaders from represented institutions. This regional diversity recruiting event provides students at and recent graduates of HBCUs with opportunities to partner with organizations seeking talent for their internships, co-ops, full-time and part-time positions, undergraduate research programs, graduate programs, and professional schools. These events also include opportunities for students, alumni, faculty, and administrators with a venue to network with recruiters that host information sessions and conduct interviews.

There are several key reasons for the Carolina Cluster’s effectiveness.

“The structure of the Carolina Cluster is very important,” Franklin explains.    

“All members have an equal voice. We make decisions together. We also have a forum to discuss everyone’s concerns. The State Office pulls everything together and has separate funding to achieve combined goals. We have quarterly Steering Committee meetings, and the provost of each institution is required to come because we want decision-makers to be in the room.”

The Carolina Cluster also realizes economies of scale by not repeating professional development and career-related events.

Franklin and Green offer suggestions for other professionals looking to create a collaborative effort like the Carolina Cluster, such as:

  • Establishing the structure, goals, and objectives—The Carolina Cluster’s first step was to develop the structure of the collaboration and establish a self-funded State Office to implement goals, which were decided on by all three member institutions. There was a shared collaboration and finalization of the logo, vision, and mission statements, and purpose of the collaboration. It also developed and implemented a forum through which all institutional voices are regularly heard via Steering Committee meetings.
  • Making sure key decision-makers are regularly engaged—The State Office maintains contact with all Carolina Cluster team members. It also reschedules a Steering Committee meeting if a provost has a competing conflict, as the provost from each of the Carolina Cluster’s institutions is required to be present at meetings. 
  • Funding the supporting office—By having its own funds, the State Office is able to implement compatible programs designed to benefit each member of the Carolina Cluster’s member institutions.
  • Engaging employers, faculty and staff, and students on an ongoing basis—The State Office ensures that employer relations, regional recruiting programs and supplemental events, professional development, and support occur on a regular basis to consistently help improve outcomes.

“We also share the wins,” Franklin adds.

“Success earned is directed to each Cluster member institution’s team. In essence, collaborative successes are counted as a win by each institution.”

Learn more about NACE’s HBCU Summit and the Carolina Cluster.