College leaders: We must do a better job preparing workforce

College leaders: We must do a better job preparing workforce

Members of the BankNewport LIVE panel are, front row from left, BankNewport President and CEO Sandra Pattie, CCRI President Meghan Hughes, Providence College President Brian Shanley, and former President and CEO of The New York Times Janet Robinson (moderator). In the back are, from left, University of Rhode Island President David Dooley, Roger Williams University President Donald Farish, Salve Regina President Jane Gerety, Rhode Island College President Frank Sánchez and Bryant University President Ronald Machtley. (Breeze photo by Nancy Kirsch)

PROVIDENCE – At an Oct. 19 breakfast and panel discussion, “Building & Acquiring Talent in Rhode Island,” local college and university presidents celebrated the opportunities and acknowledged the challenges associated with preparing students to succeed after college.

BankNewport LIVE (leadership, inspiration, vision, expertise) sponsored the event, and Janet Robinson, former president and CEO of The New York Times, moderated the panel discussion at the Providence Marriott.

An April Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce survey revealed that 90 percent of surveyed employers were dissatisfied with job applicants, said Robinson, given their insufficient educational achievement, professional certifications, technical abilities and/or skills.

With workforce development a key responsibility for institutions of higher learning, Rhode Island College is initiating efforts to provide many more students with meaningful, experiential learning opportunities, said RIC President Frank Sánchez.

“Higher education has to do a better job partnering with industry … to develop a stronger workforce,” he said.

Meghan Hughes, president of Community College of Rhode Island, concurred.

“Talent has no zip code; it’s an equal opportunity finder,” she said. CCRI’s focus on listening intently and responding to what employers need has proven successful, said Hughes, noting the school’s relationships with the defense industry, marine trades and advanced manufacturing.

Mari Anne Snow CEO and founder of Sophaya, a Pawtucket-based consulting firm, said small business is a big player in the employment world.

“Don’t discount small businesses as a feeder pipeline; we’re closer to communities … we draw from the local population and … we see trends happening … we’re going to be the people who will offer young people hands-on opportunities,” she said.

Calling himself a “bit of a contrarian,” Providence College President Brian Shanley said, “I don’t believe education’s purpose is to develop workers; the purpose of education is to lead a meaningful life (though) work is part of a meaningful life. The real purpose of education is learning how to learn.”

Salve Regina University President Jane Gerety concurred with Shanley, noting that the pace of change is so fast that everyone must keep learning as they move through life. Empathy, critical thinking, the ability to read and write critically, and humility are other skills essential for students and employees to thrive, she said.

Seventy-three percent of the U.S. jobs created since 2008 require a college degree, but only about 38 percent of working-aged Americans are college graduates, said Roger Williams University President Donald Farish, citing a Georgetown University study. With demand outpacing supply, what’s to be done? With more college students per capita than any other state in the nation, he said, Rhode Island has an underappreciated asset. However, only 10 percent of out-of-state students remain here after graduation, in contrast to the Boston area, which retains some 43 percent of out-of-state students attending Boston-area colleges and universities, said Farish.

University of Rhode Island President David Dooley appealed to the business leaders in the room, urging them to provide learning experiences that colleges can’t offer, such as work internships or summer jobs. It’s a learning environment “that can’t be replicated in our classrooms, libraries, collaborative learning spaces,” he said. “Let’s work together to create those opportunities for students.”

Out-of-state students who get summer internships and experience the Ocean State’s summer may remain here after graduation, said Shanley, though panelists acknowledged the challenges associated with providing paid internships and housing to interns.

Innovation is a critically important skill for the future, and one businesses and academic institutions champion, said Bryant University President Ronald Machtley. In response to his own question “How do you teach innovation?” he said Bryant has identified five key traits of innovation, which the university has incorporated into learning: curiosity, creativity, collaboration, integrative thinking and grit, which includes perseverance and the ability to overcome failure, he said.

The demand for employees with expertise in artificial intelligence and in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields is growing, said college leaders.

Rhode Island’s size, the strong partnerships and connections among business, government and academic leaders who can make things happen and the thousands of students who graduate from the state’s colleges and universities are significant assets, panelists agreed, for businesses interested in relocating or expanding here.

Dooley said he fears that out-of-state students may be influenced to leave Rhode Island, given many natives’ cynicism and pessimism about the state.

Panelists encouraged employers interested in developing academic partnerships, hiring interns, recruiting students and/or serving in some sort of advisory capacity to contact their institutions, many of which offer a centralized, one-stop portal for businesses.