The Business of Building Community Relationships

Podcast September 11, 2019

Community colleges are structured to respond to community needs, and in order to meet those needs and train students for good-paying careers in the community, colleges must understand the types of industries in their service areas and how likely those industries and local businesses are to hire their students. In addition to this, we also know local business leaders sit on college advisory and foundation boards, donate to scholarships, and lend their expertise in classrooms. So, building strong relationships with these key stakeholders is absolutely essential to the success of colleges. 

In this episode of Interact’s Community College Marketing MasterClass, Cheryl Broom of Interact and Scott Ashton of the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce discuss ways to better engage with local businesses and build stronger relationships with them. 


Cheryl Broom:
Hi. Welcome to Community College Marketing MasterClass. I’m Cheryl Broom. Community colleges have many important constituents. There are students of course and their family members, parents, children, and other influencers like high school counselors. We also have a connection to our local businesses and industries. Community colleges are structured to respond to community needs, to train students for good paying careers close to home, and the types of jobs available to them depend on the type of industries in your service area, as well as how likely those industries and local businesses are to hire your students.

Plus, our local business leaders sit on our advisory boards. They sit on community college foundation boards. They donate to scholarships. They lend their expertise in classrooms and in volunteer assignments. And so building strong relationships with local businesses is absolutely essential to your college’s success.


I’m really excited today to have a guest on who is a true expert in serving and speaking and engaging local businesses.


Scott Ashton is the Chief Executive Officer at the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce. He’s worked with the Oceanside Chamber for more than two decades, and before that worked at Chambers of Commerce in Wisconsin and Massachusetts. So he has seen businesses from coast to coast. Scott and I worked together for years when I served on the board of directors for the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce and he has great experience and deep expertise on what business owners want to see in our students and want to see from our colleges. Thank you so much Scott for joining us. I’m so happy to have you on the podcast.

Scott Ashton:
Thank you Cheryl. I appreciate the invitation and the opportunity to speak with you today.

Cheryl Broom:
Well, great. Well, let’s get started. I am assuming that most of our listeners know what a chamber of commerce is, but I know there’s also some of them out there who aren’t familiar with their local chamber, haven’t participated in it. So I’m hoping you can take some time and explain to us what the mission of a chamber of commerce is and the role that it serves in the local community.

Scott Ashton:
Absolutely. And I think if you look at each individual chamber, you’ll find that they have individual missions that are really related to the needs of their community. But I think the mission of the Oceanside Chamber pretty much sums up what in general what chambers are about. Our mission is really just simply to stimulate economic prosperity and to foster a vibrant community. That plays out in a variety of different ways for our chamber. Also, we have almost 700 members, and the needs of our members are very specific and individual based on what they do and what their industries are. But there’s several different ways that our work plays out. First of all, it’s being an advocate for our business community. And I think all businesses need that. They need somebody that’s looking out for their interests because the businesses are impacted by what is happening in its city hall, what’s happening in our county offices and our statewide legislature and also on a federal level. So we make it a point as a chamber to follow what is going on and make sure that our businesses have a voice. A lot of times that involves working with our neighboring chambers. When we know that there are things that are going to impact their members too, we reach out and try to advocate together. Also, along very similar lines is political action. There’s probably about 30% or so of chambers in California are engaged in endorsing candidates. We’re about to enter into that realm for the 2020 elections. And we’re sticking with endorsing on a very local level for our city council and mayoral races.

Scott Ashton:
But a lot of chambers have expanded that and get involved in statewide and county races. So that’s something that we have been putting a lot of work into, in reaching out to our members and finding out what their issues are and what types of candidates they want to see leading our local government. We’re also involved in workforce development, working very closely with the education community, which I’m sure we’ll touch on in our conversation. And then some of the simpler needs like providing networking opportunities and educational workshops for small business owners. A lot of our members depend on us as an avenue to make new connections and grow their network. So they have people to use their products and services and to refer others to them. You’ll see with a wide variety of types of businesses involved with us, many are involved for quite a few different reasons.

Cheryl Broom:
Yeah. It’s interesting being an advocate for the business community in that role that you serve community colleges are part of the business community. They are one of the largest employers, especially for colleges in the Midwest or in smaller areas they are the biggest employer in town and they do operate as a business. So when there’s decisions being made at city hall or locally, it impacts their institutions as well. I think a lot of people don’t think about education that way, but they’re really an important part of the local economy and are impacted by the things that happen locally.

Scott Ashton:
Absolutely. We find that we’ve been engaged with our colleges over the years on issues that are important to them and advocating on their behalf. So absolutely. Their business is just like the rest of our members and they need our support also.

Cheryl Broom:
Do you find that most educational institutions sit on chamber boards? Is that common?

Scott Ashton:
In my experience with the chambers that I have worked for and neighboring chambers that I’ve worked with, it is very common. My last chamber job before moving to California in 1996 was at the Cambridge Massachusetts Chamber. And as you can imagine, that’s a business community that places a high premium on its relationship with the education community. We had reps from both Harvard and MIT on our board at that time. And moving here, we’ve consistently had representation from the education community here at the Oceanside Chamber. Our board currently includes representatives from MiraCosta College and Cal State San Marcos. And they’ve consistently contributed value to our organization by giving us better insight as to how they’re working with the students that are eventually going to be working in our workforce. And it’s not only board involvement, but we’ve had representatives from education serving on chamber committees and so on and being involved in a variety of avenues.

Cheryl Broom:
One of the things I really loved when I served on the chamber board, I mean, I loved all the networking. I tried to get to all of the different events because you just meet so many fantastic people who are really interested in what the college is doing. And I love to building those relationships. bBut I always really liked the report out at the end of the chamber meeting and getting the opportunity to share what the college is doing. And no matter how much publicity you do, people don’t hear about everything. So I really took advantage of the last five minutes of the meeting to share all the different things that were happening at the college. I really enjoyed that.

Scott Ashton:
Absolutely.

Cheryl Broom:
And besides that networking, what kind of benefits for those colleges out there who aren’t active participants with their local chamber, what are some of the benefits they get from participating both as a chamber member and also from volunteering to being on the board? What can they expect?

Scott Ashton:
Sure. So one thing, just going back to what you said about the fact that you enjoy the opportunity to report out on what you’re doing, a good chamber can really serve as a PR arm for its members. And MiraCosta College has been specifically great about taking advantage of that. They consistently send us press releases about what is going on within their organization. And we share that out. And we do the same for any of our members. We’ll post it on the news page, on our website, on the sidebar of our e-newsletter. We’ll share those stories out through social media. A good chamber should be able to help its educational institutions and all of its members get out the great news about the work that they’re doing. And it’s also, we found that part of the benefit is the two-way conversation that we have because we find that our educational institutions really want to be responsive to the needs of the business community.

Scott Ashton:
So by being involved in the chamber, they have firsthand interaction with the businesses. And then with that, they can be responsive to the needs of our business community. Just another specific example of a benefit that we provided with MiraCosta College is they utilize the chamber as an opportunity to develop support and good will, especially with the measure MM bond that passed a few years ago. That was a $455 million bond. And the chamber provided a platform for MiraCosta to explain the value and the importance of what they were doing. And that’s something that we are consistently in the position to help with.

Cheryl Broom:
Yeah. I wanted to ask about that. There are that you’ve mentioned the 2020 elections coming up. A lot of colleges across the nation are going to put either a bond measure or a levy on the ballot to try to raise funds for their colleges. I’m wondering if chambers give endorsements and how colleges can go about getting an endorsement or building a relationship because it’s such an important part of the community. And having an endorsement from your chamber or the support of your chamber really means a lot to colleges who are looking to raise funds in that way.

Scott Ashton:
Yeah. I think that in terms of chambers that are engaging in this area and being active and supporting things that are important to their business community, there’s more and more chambers doing that. Unfortunately, not all chambers are doing that yet. But I would say it’s very important to take the time to educate your chamber on the importance of what you’re doing and why they need to support that bond and how it ties in with the business community. And then if you get the chamber on board to support that, don’t be shy about asking for their help in public relations and sharing out the information to their networks.

Cheryl Broom:
And you are always really fantastic. The Oceanside chamber has an … you really do have an amazing PR arm. You do magazines, various publications, electronic, printed, events, and there’s so many ways that you serve your members really well to help get the word out. And I think a lot of colleges don’t realize that they can take advantage of those chamber resources as members of the chamber.

Scott Ashton:
Yeah. That’s true. There’s so many different ways that the colleges can engage their chamber and local businesses. So just some examples of what we’ve experienced here in our community is hosting of events like our mixers workshops for business. Also, candidates forums. Our local college has provided a venue for us to host candidate forums. And also, they’ve not only provided a venue, but they’ve partnered in by having their student government involved in the process. So that’s been a great experience for us. Also, sponsoring local events, like booths at street fairs and community events it’s a way for the college to utilize their chamber membership to engage with large groups of community members. You mentioned publications. We have a far reach in the community through our print publications and our websites. So there’s opportunities to leverage that and get the most out of your advertising dollars through the chamber. So yeah, I think, and the other thing is to have your board members engaged in chamber events too. And we’ve had a lot of success with that in our community.

Cheryl Broom:
Yeah, that’s a fantastic tip because board members are always looking to connect with their constituents because as elected officials they need to serve as the link between the college and the public. And having them participate in those events is a great way for them to get to know business leaders and share what’s happening at their colleges. So really good tip. One of my favorite things that we did when, when we were working together is we had the career or technology institute opened up in Carlsbad, California and we had a networking event with the chamber, and I think we actually did it with yours and the Carlsbad Chamber and invited chamber members over to tour the facility. And that was a great way. Colleges are always looking at how they can get business leaders on campus. Doing the networking event on campus was a great way to bring them on site and show them how fantastic the programs are.

Scott Ashton:
Yeah. And I highly recommend that, especially if it’s an opportunity to showcase specific programs that the college is doing to meet workforce needs.

Cheryl Broom:
Exactly. And we get asked that a lot at Interact, is how colleges can better engage with their local businesses. Apart from joining the chamber and we talked about some really great ways to do PR, have you seen any other ways that colleges can engage with local industry and local businesses, things that have spread the word or given a good introduction on behalf of the college?

Scott Ashton:
Well, again, it’s going to vary from community to community, but most chambers are able to provide introductions to key local officials through maybe elected official receptions and to the community through street fairs and health fairs and expos and so on. And then, with again, with publications and websites and so on. So I would say taking advantage of those specific opportunities. But again, doing outreach to the chambers, if you need help gathering data about the workforce needs of the local businesses, reach out to your chambers, ask them to partner with you in that.

Cheryl Broom:
Oh, that’s great. That’s a great idea. We always are looking for ways to see what businesses think about our students or the types of skills that they’re looking for in hiring, internship opportunities, a fantastic resource to get some more information and all of that. And you also do scholarships, right? You give out scholarships every year on behalf of some of the businesses that are your members?

Scott Ashton:
Yes. Actually we’ve done scholarships for many years. We’re actually shifting that funding starting next year over to doing more with work based learning experiences and internships because we’ve been partnering with Oceanside Promise to make sure that all of our students have the best opportunity for success in college, career, and life. And in many cases that involves giving them some exposure in the workforce before they leave high school. So we’re channeling our previous scholarship dollars into internships going forward.

Cheryl Broom:
Oh, that’s fantastic. And as you talk to your businesses that are part of the chamber, what kinds of things are they looking for? Students who apply for internships or students who are straight out of college? Are there any skills that you keep hearing about over and over that are important to the businesses?

Scott Ashton:
Well, I do hear specific needs for things like welders and machinists and so on. Really the consistent theme are the soft skills. They want people that are willing to learn, that are able to interact effectively with their coworkers and their management within the businesses that know to come work on time, and that are willing to put themselves in the position to learn the technical skills. So very consistently, even in highly technical businesses, I hear that they, that soft skills are important.

Cheryl Broom:
Yes. I hear the same thing over, over and over, soft skills, working well with colleagues, the responsiveness, writing ability, speaking ability are really important to employers. Luckily most of our community college students get trained in that. So showcasing to businesses that community college students are great hires I think is one way that we can kind of bridge that gap a little bit.

Scott Ashton:
Yes, absolutely. And we’ve experienced that firsthand. I mean, we’ve had interns from our local colleges and over the years we’ve hired several interns to actually come on board as employees. So I think we can say that our schools are doing a good job in working on those soft skills.

Cheryl Broom:
That’s great. I love to hear that. That’s exciting. Maybe one of them was one of my students. Top of line. Their notes. Any other tips that you have for colleges, other organizations they could belong to or resources they can turn to as they get to know their local businesses better?

Scott Ashton:
Yeah. I would just say a couple things. Reach out to the chambers to see if there’s specific partnership opportunities. Maybe offer to write articles for their newsletters because that provides the platform for the educational institution to share their information. But chambers are always looking for good content for their blogs and newsletters and so on. So that’s a perfect opportunity. And then beyond just the chambers, look at partnerships with visitors bureaus and downtown associations and main street organizations. I know that MiraCosta College has partnered with our visitors bureau on hospitality programs because that’s such a … tourism’s such an important part of our local economy. Just based on what’s important in your community, see how you can get plugged in with your chamber.

Cheryl Broom:
Those are great tips. And as you were talking I was also thinking about things like inviting your chamber to your theater events or to music events that you have at your college, involving them when you have important things happening. I think there’s so many opportunities to become better connected, and I think you’ve given some really, really, really good ideas. So thank you so much.

Scott Ashton:
Absolutely. Yeah, I appreciate the opportunity to share this.

Cheryl Broom:
Well, and speaking of beautiful Oceanside, it is lunchtime here so I can get a bit too. Thank you so much for the great tips and I’m going to walk to one of our wonderful restaurants in downtown Oceanside and get a sandwich.

Scott Ashton:
All right, that sounds great. Thank you for supporting our local businesses, Cheryl.

Cheryl Broom:
All right. Well, thank you, Scott, so much. I really appreciate your time and thank you for all of those listening to today’s podcast. Some great tips from Scott on how to become better engaged with your local business, how to showcase your college and build deeper connections with people who are ultimately going to hire our students. So that’s it for today’s Community College Marketing MasterClass. I’m Cheryl Broom and I’ll catch you next time.


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