Whenever there’s discussion in the public realm about how best to revitalize the economy, the focus is understandably on job creation and putting people back to work. A frequent part of that discussion is the key role that higher education plays in preparing young people to enter and succeed in the working world.
But it’s just as important to talk about the value — and the significant economic contribution — of companies and organizations that actively develop the workforce they already have, especially in these times of rapidly changing technologies and expectations, not to mention intense competition among companies to keep their most talented employees and make sure they continue to thrive.
Higher education must be a vital part of this discussion as well, because colleges and universities should be a valuable partner and resource for companies, a primary supplier of the knowledge and tools that can help them develop and sustain an optimal workforce. And an optimal workforce contributes not only to the success of individual companies, but also to a more nimble yet stable American economy.
At the same time, those of us in higher education cannot simply offer up a stale selection of academic offerings and tell companies to take ‘em or leave ‘em. We need to find innovative, attractive ways to help businesses, institutions and organizations get to that optimal workforce.
Here are some of those ways to consider:
• Assess individual needs. As dean of Elmhurst College’s School for Professional Studies, I’ve been going out into the community to talk with the leaders of corporations, businesses, health care providers, school districts, municipalities and other entities about what their needs are. The School for Professional Studies is continually developing new programs, and they and their curricula potentially can be customized to suit the needs of individual organizations. I’m finding a very receptive audience.
• Help workers stay current. In certain fields, the technology is changing so rapidly that the shelf life of workers’ knowledge and skills is relatively short. Under a new program offered by Elmhurst College’s Department of Computer Science Information Systems, graduates of the Master of Science in Computer Information Systems program can keep their degree current by taking one free course each year to maintain their skills. The free-course voucher program grants M.C.I.S. alumni with a full-tuition waiver to any graduate course offered in the C.S.I.S. department.
• Be flexible. Busy executives and employees have to be able to take courses on their own terms and, increasingly, on their own turf. More and more schools are offering courses, even entire degree programs, on line, as well as at night and on weekends.
In some instances, schools are taking their programs on the road. For example, some of Elmhurst College’s graduate nursing programs are offered at partner hospitals. And in January, Elmhurst joined the University Center of Lake County to make its Master of Science in Supply Chain Management degree program more accessible to professionals in northeastern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin, home to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center and numerous Fortune 500 corporations.
• Be relevant. Employment trends show that the demand for certain professionals, such as information technology specialists, has never been greater and is likely to continue as the economy recovers and a growing variety of organizations recognizes the need for workers with IT skills.
Taking the idea of relevance back to the broader level, it’s up to colleges and universities to actively demonstrate their relevance to companies and institutions; to find creative yet common-sense ways to support these organizations in the crucial endeavor of investing in their employees — and, in turn, investing in the long-term health of the economy.
• Timothy H. Ricordati is Dean of the School for Professional Studies and an Associate Professor of Business at Elmhurst College.