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Posted: August 01, 2008

Executive education: Fast track to the future

Colleges respond to changing work-force needs

Nora Caley

Here’s something they don’t talk about in those PC-versus-Mac commercials: Mainframe computers, those large, decades-old machines, still hold data for banks and other organizations. Many of the baby boomers who know how to maintain those IBM-compatible systems are getting ready to retire, so companies must find new workers with these skills.

To respond to this need, IBM has partnered with 400 universities worldwide to teach mainframe and large-system skills. One of the most recent schools is the University of Denver. In June, DU, IBM and the Metro Denver WIRED initiative announced that they’d partnered to create a Mainframe Administration Training Program. The 20-week course is free for candidates who scored highly on a test DU administered on June 12. The course is funded through a WIRED grant.

Griffith A. Kundahl, director of development for DU’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, says the effort is part of the university’s vision of being a great private university dedicated to the public good. "This program is a great example of that," he says.

It’s also an example of how local colleges and universities are responding to employers’ demands for skilled workers. The institutions are revamping programs, adding courses and adding convenience for working adults. The goal is to make it easy for employers to hire graduates, and to make sure graduates develop the relevant skills for a changing workplace.

Whether the students are traditional 18- to 22-year-olds looking for their first "real" job, or adult learners hoping to update their skills, schools say they are responding to what businesses and students want.

Lisa Severy, director of career services for the University of Colorado at Boulder, says what employers seek hasn’t changed over the years.

"They are looking for entry-level graduates with critical thinking and problem- solving skills, that have had work experience but are at a very trainable spot in their ?careers," she says.

Meanwhile, graduates are looking for jobs that will allow them to express their creativity and see where they fit in the world. "They are still in this exploratory mindset, and they surf from one job to another," Severy says. "That can be frustrating for employers who are used to the mindset of, ‘I am coming out into the world, and I want to prove myself and work up the ladder.’"

Rich Schweigert, CEO of Colorado State University’s new online Global Campus, says there is demand for workers in industries such as health care and information technology. In all industries, there is a need for workers with leadership skills and change-management skills.

"Businesses tell us they want a relevant career focus, and educational opportunities that are delivered in a timely manner," he says. "Employers also are wise enough to know by further educating their work force, they are helping their business and the marketplace."

He adds that students want to further their careers and sharpen their marketable skills. However, many students don’t have the time — or with today’s gas prices, the money — to drive to a location to attend classes a few times a week. "There are a lot of folks who can’t get to campus, especially in rural Colorado," he says. "They would have to drive hundreds of miles for educational opportunities."

Vincent Wincelowicz, chairman of the College of Business at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, says employers are looking for workers with ethics and integrity. Employers also want staffers who can write clearly. "We are looking to produce students who are able to take something and critically evaluate it, then break it down and describe it to people," he says.

Hands-on practical experience is important, too. "They want somebody who has done projects in entrepreneurship, who has written business plans for different ventures."

Students want the experience, too, and quickly. "They walk in the door, and they want to be a marketing person, an HR person," he says. "They are not going to spend the first two years of college redoing high school."

Peg Rooney, dean of the Center for Career and Technical Education at the Community College of Denver, agrees that students don’t want to waste time studying theory or taking irrelevant electives. "They want to get in, get out, get an associate’s degree, get a job," she says.

Sometimes they can’t move that quickly because there are waiting lists, especially in the health-care programs. So some students opt to earn other degrees, such as an associate’s degree in business administration, while they wait for an opening in nursing school.

April Peterson, assistant director of career services for Regis University, says employers want workers who show flexibility in their schedule and their responsibilities. "It’s the person who can come in early and stay late. They can take on something new when they need to, can learn quickly and adapt to change, and be a problem solver," she says.

In general, she says, business majors are in demand, as are IT experts and health-care professionals.
What colleges and universities are doing

In addition to employer demands, there are other demands. In his State of the State address in 2007, Gov. Bill Ritter said he wanted "our colleges and universities to double the production of technical certificates and college degrees over the next 10 years." Several schools have launched online programs or revamped current programs.

In May, CSU began enrolling students for Global Campus, a new online program that has its own faculty and staff. Classes will start this fall for the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Schweigert says in its first month, CSU-Global Campus fielded queries from several states as well as Canada and Mexico, but the main focus is on Colorado students. CSU is partnering with state agencies to encourage employees to earn master’s degrees. He also plans to communicate with chambers of commerce to get the word out about the new program.

"Now employers have another choice in the means to educate their work force," he says. "We think they will be excited about it."

Schweigert says costs are often a barrier, so CSU-Global offers a tuition guarantee. Students pay the same tuition rate for as long as they are continuously enrolled and make progress towards their degree. Also, students who enroll for fall 2008 receive a Charter Scholarship, and in-state students will receive resident rates. Undergraduates will pay $249 per credit, and graduate students will pay $349. The school will also waive its $50 application fee for a limited time.

DU has revamped its University College, the school of professional and continuing studies. Students can earn a certificate, undergraduate degree or graduate degree, and the courses are offered through various formats, including online. James R. Davis, the dean, says DU redesigned the curriculum to better respond to the business community’s needs.

"They are interested in people having a better sense of context and big picture of their organization and their industry," Davis says. "Instead of giving people lots of skills, you try to back up and say, ‘What is this industry, what are its origins, what is it like now, who are the key players and where is it going?’"

For example, he says, one of the graduate programs is Environmental Policy and Management. "We are trying to revamp the curriculum so we pay more attention to what is this whole scope of environmental jobs and careers," he says. "So a person doesn’t just come in and say, ‘I work in this green organization. I am an advocate. That’s all I want to know.’"

DU is also trying to make it easier for people to attend classes. Leslie James, who recently earned a master’s degree in telecommunications with emphasis in technology and policy management from University College, says she occasionally travels for work for her job as a global account manager for Sprint. She earned the degree online and never met any of the professors or other students until graduation this spring.

"With other master’s programs, if you miss a class it can take your grade down," she says. "DU has great recognition of what people’s schedules look like. We are all busy."

Johnson & Wales has grown its criminal justice program, partly in response to the Denver Regional Council of Governments. "Years ago, they said in the metro area there is a dearth of applicants for law enforcement jobs," he says. "Those that apply can’t get through the background check." He says the need for security at the Democratic National Convention, as well as other issues such as school violence, have also created a need for criminal justice professionals.

The College of Business, which opened in Denver in 2000, has about 300 students. The school tries to get the word out by hosting symposiums on school violence, disaster training for building management companies, and other presentations. There are more than 1,100 students in Johnson & Wales’ better known culinary arts and hospitality programs.

Rooney says the Community College of Denver has adapted its curriculum in response to the school’s business advisory committee’s suggestions. For example, to fill the need for skilled child-care workers, CCD instituted an early childhood education director certificate and group leader certificates.

"They also said, ‘Oh and by the way, we don’t want to go to your campus, we want you to come to us,’" she says. So CCD offers the program onsite at eight child-care centers. Also the city of Denver wanted CCD to offer employees at the Wellington Webb Municipal Building a way to take classes for an associate’s degree in business administration, so the school started offering those onsite classes.

Rooney says other growing program areas include computer-aided drafting and design, and health-care areas such as nursing, radiologic technology and dental hygiene.

Peterson says Regis’ fastest growing program is its accelerated nursing option, a 12-month program in which students earn a bachelor of science in nursing degree. Other health-care programs such as doctor of physical therapy are growing, too. Regis, which specializes in the adult learner, will add a doctor of pharmacy program this year.

Going forward
Severy says the career center at CU offers brochures and workshops on topics such as how to present oneself on the Internet. The center discourages new graduates from creating a MySpace or Facebook type of profile when they approach employers online.

"They would think nothing of uploading this funny picture from spring break so their friends can see it online, but it might come back to bite them," she says. "We prefer they use sites like LinkedIn instead." (The online business networking site has no videos and few photos, and helps people meet others through introductions by colleagues.)

CU also has programs for parents. Severy says there have been cases of "helicopter parents" scheduling job interviews for their adult children, or even calling to find out more about a job’s benefits. "We have open houses, lunches, and we do a presentation, How to help your son or daughter in their professional development," she says. "In terms of professional development parents are our greatest resource."

There is also the Colorado Consortium of Collegiate Candidates, a website that features links to the career services departments of 12 colleges and universities in the state. "We want to make it easy to hire Colorado grads," Severy says.

Davis says University College will continue to help students prepare themselves for jobs of the future. "I think the new jobs and the direction of the employment world is very much about people who are analytic, creative, and who can relate one set of ideas over here to another set of ideas over there," he says. "The jobs will be about people who can do that, who can see the big picture and get it down on paper."

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Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in business and food topics. She can be reached at noracaley@comcast.net.

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