Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs

Four Tips from Five University Presidents

Deanna Devey | Photos courtesy of the Salt Lake Chamber Mar 15, 2019

Amid a booming economy, Utah businesses face the challenge of finding qualified workers. In fact, the Salt Lake Chamber’s CEOutlook survey found labor access issues are a top concern among executives.

“We consistently find businesses share a common concern about the impact of a labor shortage,” says Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. “It is the single greatest challenge and the single greatest threat to our continued economic and business growth.”

The chamber’s Education and Workforce Forum brought together the presidents of five Utah colleges and universities to discuss how businesses and higher education can create a well-balanced and skilled workforce. Here are their suggestions.

1. Promote Adaptability

Westminster College President Beth Dobkin says her vision is for students to graduate with skills to adapt to an ever-changing labor market.  

“We are in a time now where we have jobs that are yet to be created,” Dobkin says. “We have problems we can’t yet imagine and, of course, technologies yet to be invented. You put those things together, and we really need to create the kind of workforce that is adaptive and flexible.”

Westminster works with businesses to understand their needs and incorporates those skills into the curriculum. The college also focuses on building connections and fostering learning across disciplines.

“You can have a chemist who’s also singing in the choir,” Dobkin says.

The idea is that students are more flexible when education is not compartmentalized.

Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez knows a lot about adaptability. She worked as a biotech venture capitalist on Wall Street, a philanthropist at Carnegie Corporation, an administrator for the National University of Singapore, and a head of corporate and legal affairs at Microsoft.

“We should be breaking the walls of separate fields of knowledge,” she says. “We should be breaking the walls that say, ‘If you’re doing that, you can’t do this.’”

2. Inspire Entrepreneurs

By 2032, 42 percent of jobs will no longer exist because of changes in technology, says Utah State University President Noelle Cockett. That’s why USU is preparing students to create their own business opportunities.

“What it looks like in the future will really be this drive for entrepreneurship,” Cockett says. “To take an idea, develop it and create not only an income for that person but jobs for others as well.”

In fact, 40 percent of USU students aspire to own a business.

“This generation wants to be their own boss,” Cockett says. “I think for Utah, we really need to stoke this spirit of entrepreneurship.” 

group of women sitting and talking
Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez says early intervention matters.

3. Encourage Diversity

When University of Utah President Ruth Watkins was first appointed to her current position, she asked business and government leaders what they needed.   

“I learned from many of our big industries that if we do not produce a more diverse workforce, they will not stay with us,” Watkins says. “They’re selling products around the world, they’re working in very diverse environments. They want graduates from different backgrounds who speak different languages, who represent different cultures. We must work on that.”

One way UVU is attempting to do this is through early intervention. UVU PREP, a summer STEM program, helps largely unrepresented populations, including women and minorities. Tuminez says more than 500 middle-schoolers come to UVU to study logic, math and engineering. They also receive coaching on soft skills.

“Nuns intervened in my life when I was 5,” says Tuminez, who grew up in the slums of Iloilo City in the Philippines. “Early intervention matters as we look to prosperity in the decades ahead.”

The presidents also said it’s important to prepare women for leadership to provide additional points of view.  

“We are at that point in time where we need all our human capital,” Tuminez says. “Families are happier, societies are healthier when we have all our human talent involved and developed and making a contribution.”

4. Focus on Completion

Along with promoting diversity, Watkins is also addressing employers’ needs by helping students complete their degrees.

“The state needs more graduates,” Watkins says. “We have to get people through their degrees in a timelier manner.”

This includes re-engaging students who started school but left without a degree.

“Access to college, where we’ve focused so long, is a hollow promise without college completion,” Watkins says.

Education, however, isn’t just about a four-year program. In addition to degrees, Salt Lake Community College provides short- and long-term training and certificates, including a Goldman Sachs small-business program.

“SLCC offers a flexibility to accommodate business and industry and what they need,” says SLCC President Deneece Huftalin. “Some folks just need trained skills. They don’t care whether they have a credential or not. They just need great training.”

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