Communication, Trust the Foundation of Strong Relationships Between HBCUs, Employers

January 30, 2024 | By Kevin Gray

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
Two HBCU students on campus.

TAGS: best practices, diversity and inclusion, nace insights, partnerships,

As Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are a key source of high-quality, diverse talent for employers, there are benefits for both institutions and organizations in developing successful partnerships.

Located in Texas, Prairie View A&M University is one of the nation’s leading producers of Black engineering talent and features cutting-edge research centers in big data, AI, cybersecurity, and more. It has also forged successful partnerships with industry employers eager to add this talent to their employee pipelines.

February 21-22, 2024
NACE’S 4th Annual HBCU Summit—winner of a prestigious 2023 Summit Award from ASAE—brings together leaders from HBCUs, other colleges and universities, and talent acquisition experts to explore and solve the real-world challenges. Together, these workforce experts share employer relations and recruiting strategies plus from-the-field insights to help build sustainable partnerships between HBCUs and employers committed to equitable employment outcomes.

“Prairie View is a strong source of talent and, through our employer partnerships, we give our students wider access to job, internship, research, and professional development opportunities,” says Curtis Fields, program leader and career development adviser in the Roy G. Perry College of Engineering at Prairie View A&M.

“Partnerships like these are also beneficial because Prairie View recently achieved R2 status. One of the ways the college of engineering can contribute toward the university’s goal of reaching R1 status is by continuing to improve development, research, and funding, all of which can be supported by stronger, tighter relationships with our industry partners.”  

Through Prairie View’s partnerships, employers engage student organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers in events like lobby days and tech talks. Employers can also commit to a deeper relationship with the college of engineering through its sponsored engagement program.

“This is where employers provide financial support for career development and student success programs, which allows us to be strong and at the same time, come up with unique and interesting engagement events,” Fields explains.

“In addition to regular activities, employers in the program hold one or more sponsored event on campus each academic year depending on their sponsorship level. The College of Engineering team works with employers on the timing and type of event it will hold on campus. Employers also tend to ensure some of their representatives at the event are Prairie View alums.”

During an upcoming sponsored-engagement session, a partner will hold a multi-faceted event with senior-level employees participating in networking, panel discussions, career development sessions, and more.

Yeneneh Ketema, Northrop Grumman’s university relations diversity program lead, agrees that for partnerships between HBCUs and employers to yield the best results for all involved, they must be deeper than merely “scratch-the-surface” efforts.

Northrop Grumman has identified universities with which to partner through key criteria. Through this process, Northrop Grumman has identified HBCUs s key partners for their strong engineering and business-related graduates.

Ketema leads the recruitment efforts at the HBCUs and manages the relationships from a recruiting perspective.

“We have a relationship-based approach to our universities in which we partner to support mutually beneficial engagements,” Ketema says.

“Our efforts have ensured robust relationships that include campus leadership teams with executive sponsors who ensure comprehensive, multi-year plans with the universities. Teams include VPs and directors who help us manage the relationship at a high level. We also work to get our alumni involved for most of our partner HBCUs to build rapport. It’s a formula that's been really good for us and for our HBCU partnerships.”

Northrop Grumman emphasizes understanding the different skill sets and strengths its partner schools offer and working together to achieve goals and overcome challenges.

Beyond recruitment of students for full-time employment, internships, and a rotational program for graduate students, Northrop Grumman looks in other areas to strengthen its HBCU partnerships, such as:

  • Providing research opportunities or research agreements that could help the university build its capacity in this area;
  • Providing contributions to support enrollment and success;
  • Sitting on advisory boards;
  • Providing job market and industry updates; and
  • Presenting and being present during programming.

It also connects with each school’s faculty and deans.

“When you go to HBCUs, you have to know who the movers and shakers are on campus, and you have to know who the gatekeepers will be to get access to the students,” Ketema says.

“You have to forge relationships with these key individuals and others, and you have to value each one of these relationships.”

Programs, such as the Prairie View College of Engineering’s sponsored engagement program, are important for nurturing more fruitful partnerships, Fields says.

“When employers have ‘skin in the game’ through this level of engagement, they are even more invested and tend to be more creative with how we can help one another,” he says.

“It also gets them more excited and builds momentum on campus and within their organization. It strengthens the relationship from both sides.”

Fields and Ketema share other recommendations for strengthening partnerships between HBCUs and employers:

  • Find representatives with drive—Sometimes, you need someone—or “multiple someones”—driving the effort within the organization. Many companies will appoint campus champions, but unless that person actually believes it, feels it, is invested in it, and has the drive to move the partnership forward, it won’t advance very far.

  • Communicate goals and articulate a willingness to help—Employers should let HBCU partners know that the lines of communication are open so both sides can understand goals and address challenges. A key part of effective communication is listening; hear what your partner is saying and act on it.

  • Show you’re not just a flash in the pan—Build trust by demonstrating a commitment to the long haul. Many organizations are interested in forming partnerships with HBCUs, but they don’t commit to the school and the partnership withers.

  • Be flexible and creative—Explore ways to help one another achieve goals. There is no template for the success of partnerships between HBCUs and employers. These relationships are not monolithic, so step into them with an open mind and a willingness to explore new avenues while working together.

  • Push for more—Some employers report the HBCUs where they recruit don’t identify their aspirations or push them to get more involved. If they’re not being asked to get more involved, employers may just go with the flow and keep their commitment at a base level, whereas they might have been willing to do more had they known there was more to do. Some employers can elevate their involvement, and some can’t, depending on what’s happening in their industry, but the HBCU will never know if it doesn’t ask.

There is indeed more to gain. Successful partnerships between industry employers and HBCUs yield positive results beyond those that are tangible.

Notes Ketema: “Recruiting at HBCUs has been an honor for me. When you look at their journeys and how they're underfunded compared to the majority of [Predominantly White Institutions] while still graduating future leaders in industry, innovation, business, STEM, and engineering, you realize the amazing impact they make and the pride with which they do it.

“The talented students and dedicated staff have made an impact on our workforce and that of many other organizations. I will always be an advocate for partnering with and recruiting at HBCUs.”

Curtis Fields and Yeneneh Ketema will present in the session titled “Strong Partnerships to Learn From” during NACE’S 4th Annual HBCU Summit.

blank default headshot of a user Kevin Gray is an associate editor at NACE. He can be reached at