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How Business Leaders Influenced College Coursework

Part 4: Academics, first reluctant to hear executives out, now collaborate with them on curricula

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About two decades ago, Jeffrey Deckman assembled Rhode Island business leaders and college deans and professors for a meeting to discuss a pressing problem: Because U.S. graduates with information technology (IT) degrees didn't seem prepared for the work world, companies were hiring—and becoming too reliant on—foreign talent.

The business leaders said they would give the universities money if the latter would change their IT teaching approach and curricula.

The result: About a third of the professors walked out of the meeting.

"The universities were highly offended," said Deckman, author of Developing the Conscious Leadership Mindset for the 21st Century (Capability Accelerators Inc., 2019) and founder of West Greenwich, R.I.-based Capability Accelerators, a leadership and organizational design consultancy. "They said, 'You do not tell us what to teach or how to teach it.' "

Today, a partnership that nearly fell apart many years ago is now a thriving collaboration, one that moved Rhode Island from No. 43 to No. 19 on the Milken Institute's ranking of states best prepared for a tech-focused economy. The institute is an economic think tank in Santa Barbara, Calif.

As companies across the country began recognizing that college graduates lacked the hard or soft skills—or both—to succeed at work, business leaders began stepping in, forming alliances with universities in hopes of better equipping students for the new economy.

Colleges Match Curricula to Employer Needs

In 2000, Rhode Island companies were hiring a lot of their IT talent from abroad, relying heavily on H1‑B visas to lure job seekers to the state. When those visas expired, the companies that had invested in foreign workers found themselves short-handed, largely because they were disappointed in the graduates coming out of U.S. colleges.

"The people coming to us didn't have the education they needed, and especially not the ones coming out of college," Deckman said. "The technology and training most relevant to us in our businesses were moving more quickly than the universities could keep up with."

Schools needed to find a way to better prepare domestic students for the IT industry.

Today, the partnership Deckman created, called the Tech-Collective, has 4,000 members representing more than 100 employers in Rhode Island, and "it's growing drastically," said Tim Hebert, Tech-Collective's current chairman.

And unlike the academic resistance Deckman encountered nearly 20 years ago when he launched Tech-Collective, the 15 universities that are now members are more responsive than ever to employer feedback. For instance, after hearing from Tech-Collective employers, one Rhode Island college created a new degree: a major in English with a minor in computer science. The idea was to produce graduates with both the soft and hard skills that IT employers are seeking.

"In the last decade, even more so in the past five years, there's a lot more [effort] to try to match curricula to employer needs," Hebert said.

On-Campus Business Advisors

Today, it's increasingly common on college campuses to find business leaders advising school leaders on what skills hiring companies need in college graduates.

"You need college representatives hearing directly from employers about what works well and where there are gaps," said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based National Skills Coalition, which advocates for keeping worker skills current with economic demands. "And you need employers hearing from college reps so they understand that you can't just throw out a job description and say you need a four-year degree and assume that the degree is a proxy for everything [the business] wants—from showing up on time, to collaboration, to being able to articulate ideas, to responding to critical feedback in a thoughtful way."

At Purdue University Global, Jeffrey Buck's staff meets four times a year with a 24-member panel of business executives that advises the school on companies' needs.

"One of the philosophical approaches we have at Purdue is to make sure we're relevant and meeting the needs of industries," said Buck, dean of the School of Business and Information Technology. "When I listen to the advisory board, I can group into three buckets the things they want in the future."

Those things, he said, are excellent written and verbal communication skills; the ability to work with others on projects; and the ability to capture data, analyze it and make decisions based on that analysis.

Out of the advisory board's input grew an online degree and apprenticeship program for students interested in cybersecurity. Buck and his staff learned what skills and knowledge the companies needed, then customized courses around those skills.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects vast growth for jobs in cybersecurity, but employers are having a hard time filling even existing cybersecurity jobs, Buck said. Under the Purdue program, companies pay for students' tuition and books as they work toward a bachelor's or master's in cybersecurity. In return, the students apprentice at the companies, where they stay current on the latest technologies and hone the soft skills the companies expect from their workers.

"Our economy is changing at such a pace that people continually need to upgrade their skills," Buck said.

Strong Speaking and Writing Skills

Angela K. Miles, SHRM-SCP, is an associate professor and department chair at North Carolina Central University's School of Business.

After hearing from company executives that many graduates lack basic presentation, writing and teamwork skills when they start their new jobs, her university introduced courses to foster those skills.

"We do group activities where [the students] have to work with others to come up with solutions to a problem," she said. "We also have them make presentations to get them comfortable speaking in front of more than one or two people. This builds interpersonal skills that employers are seeking."

The National School Boards Association and the Society for Human Resource Management spoke with leading business organizations about the soft skills gap and identified six LifeReady skills that new workers need to succeed in the workplace. The coalition of business groups seeks to raise more awareness about the skills gap and provide resources for school boards to help students develop and sharpen these skills. The group set a goal: to create 1,000 new partnerships between the business and public education communities by the end of 2020.

Teaching the Teachers

Boston's New England College of Optometry has an employer council that advises deans and faculty on how to better prepare students for the work world.

"What's happening in higher education is we're looking at how we change what we do to help meet the demands of today and tomorrow," said Sandra Mohr, the college's dean of academic resources and administration. "What we found was there was a need to train faculty on how to use new technology before they teach students how to use it. How do you use all these new machines? If you don't know, there's a lot of hesitation and fear."

At her previous job at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, also in Boston, there was a similar employer council for each of the institute's four colleges, Mohr said. She believes that should be the model for most universities.

Steven Cates is a business faculty member at Purdue University Global, which offers online business degrees and certifications. While many colleges have business advisory boards—particularly for IT and business programs—there should be more of them, he said.

"Rather than have one general board for a school of business, there should be boards for engineering programs, science programs, accounting programs, so that we know what the business environment requires and how we can offer the type of educational programs that will meet those requirements, not only today, but hopefully into the future."

Part 5: New education models.