January 19, 2012

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Straightening the Learning Curve


Straightening the Learning Curve

Higher Ed Institutions Align to Enhance Utah’s Workforce

Marie Mischel

January 19, 2012

When Bill Sederburg was being interviewed for the presidency of Utah Valley State College in 2003, he wasn’t asked about how the university could help the state’s economic development. It was a striking contrast to his position as president of Ferris State University in Michigan, where economic development was a significant issue, and also to East Carolina University, where he was also a candidate for the president’s position. “About half the questions I was asked by the search committee and people involved in the interview were about how the university could help the Piedmont area of North Carolina with economic growth and development,” Sederburg says of the experience. In Utah, though, Sederburg discovered that because the strong economy at the time, “people hadn’t given a lot of thought about exactly how to use the colleges and universities better to promote economic growth in the state.” Fast forward seven years. UVSC is now Utah Valley University, Sederburg is the state’s commissioner of higher education—a position he took in 2008—and higher education’s contribution to the state’s economic development is a topic of significant interest at the Capitol. The Utah Cluster Acceleration Program (CAP) has joined the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative as a way for colleges and universities to help strengthen the state’s economy. CAP seeks partnerships between various higher education facilities, and specific clusters such as aerospace, energy and digital media, to accelerate the industries’ growth. In the future, Sederburg says, “I think you’ll see more and more economic initiatives engaging the colleges and universities.” The Parameters When colleges and universities talk about economic development, they focus on five areas, Sederburg says. The first is job training, provided primarily by technical and community colleges. Workforce development is next, providing professionals such as teachers, doctors and accountants. “The state has done that very well over the years,” Sederburg says. Not as obvious is the universities’ offering of entrepreneurial education, which is to “encourage people to take risks and become business leaders and entrepreneurs to drive the future of the state,” he says. There is also applied research, in which faculty and staff develop ways to meet market needs; and basic research, such as that funded by USTAR, which can be used for economic opportunities. “Different schools have different responsibilities in doing those five activities,” Sederburg says. “What we’re trying to do in Utah is to streamline how we do this and to do it in a collaborative way.” The Process Since income is often tied directly to education level, creating a high-quality workforce means increasing the number of college students. “What’s critical for us to do is to get our campuses and programs organized so that students can identify their career interests early and move expeditiously through the education process toward a career in a particular area,” Sederburg says. Letting students know about occupational opportunities available in local firms, such as those highlighted in the clusters, helps facilitate that; another way is to ensure academic credits can transfer easily among educational institutions. Utah leads the country in coordinating academic content and in concurrent enrollment courses, Sederburg says, and in 2009 the American Association of Colleges and Universities identified Utah as one of five pilot states for aligning educational courses with industry needs. Additionally, Utah’s System of Higher Education is working toward discovering industry needs. For example, in March UVU hosted the Pushbutton Summit to determine how to advance the digital media industry, and in April the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities spoke to members of the Salt Lake Chamber about what employers want in college graduates. “What employers are saying they look for is critical thinking skills and ability to communicate,” Sederburg says. “Those are critically important skills, but you also want to combine that with a career focus. What we’re attempting to do is create a system of helping students identify early on what they’re interested in through these career pathways and making sure their education is relevant to that.” The Results When the USTAR initiative was introduced to the Legislature in 2006, it was championed by the Salt Lake Chamber, the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (EDCUtah) and the Utah Technology Council (UTC). Since then, its accomplishments have included $12.65 million in research grants awarded and 10 patents filed or issued (2008 figures). “USTAR is a superb example of the collaboration between the universities and the state,” says Richard Nelson, UTC’s president and CEO. “It’s advancing substantial economic development.” Before USTAR, “you didn’t see the kind of collaboration that is going on now,” he adds. “You now see cross-collaboration with the universities much more so because of this advanced economic development initiative called USTAR.” Other examples include the state’s mass steering committee on education, which is comprised of legislators and representatives of higher education and industry, and Gov. Gary Herbert’s new Commission on Education Excellence. Nelson is a member of both groups, and says they are about “getting organizations and their decision-makers into sync so that we can go do something significant on industry’s number one priority, which is quality workers.” Because the Commission on Economic Excellence is so new, it doesn’t yet have a set agenda, Sederburg says. “My guess is that it will zero in on where the K-12 system connects to the higher education system. We have a lot of work to do at that connecting point. Part of it is related to these career pathways that I mentioned. We could do a better job of career pathways and aligning those better. We could do a better job of making that senior year a significant year and coordinating concurrent enrollment.” Utah is already the most efficient state in the United States in delivering degrees per dollar spent, Sederburg says, but he wants to see higher education develop a strong workforce. “Job number one for us is really helping the state develop that talent force that the state needs to advance economically.”
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