Op-Ed: Higher Ed must prepare students for changing workforce needs

In the midst of national and statewide economic uncertainty, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, business and community leaders across Pennsylvania continue to express a common, shared concern – a shortage of quality local talent to fill in-demand positions. 

In the 2019 Pennsylvania Economic Survey, employers listed a lack of qualified applicants to fill job openings as the most pressing issue they face.

It’s understandable that these leaders have lingering doubts about workforce development. Though Pennsylvania has slowly been regaining jobs lost to the pandemic, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate for October 2020 was still above the national average at 7.3 percent. Local central Pennsylvania industries, ranging from health care to information technology, all require a qualified and skilled workforce to maintain and continuously modernize their service and product offerings. Without a top-notch talent pool prepared with relevant 21st century skills businesses face the possibility of failing to remain viable and competitive. 

Reversing that trend will require expansive, collaborative efforts on job training and workforce development. An empowered workforce is made up of individuals who have the relevant, modern tools to reach their full potential, because they have the education and training they need to leverage their talents into opportunity. Likewise, that workforce is valuable to employers because they hold the in-demand skills and knowledge needed.

So what exactly is the best way to support a pipeline of talent in central Pennsylvania?

It starts with developing enduring and transformative partnerships with local partners, traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, and local and regional membership-based associations. It’s also critical to establish alliances with local businesses to support their human resource objectives and expand access to higher education for their employees. 

Historically under-represented communities – including first-generation college students, low-income populations, students of color, those living in rural areas and working adults–are potentially hindered from obtaining the marketable skills they need to succeed and advance in the current job market. Many of these students are potentially the first generation of their family to earn a degree, or they’re re-visiting their education after life circumstances required them to take a break from school. They are often an overlooked talent resource for communities, but have talents just waiting to be developed, as well as real-world experience that is essential to local businesses.

Innovative approaches to college education provide a key long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery. These approaches must focus on skill-based mastery at an affordable cost with a flexible schedule that allows learners to stay employed while earning a degree. These innovative learning models are complementary to traditional higher education options in the commonwealth, expanding opportunity to fill existing gaps. 

Since 1997 Western Governors University has provided accredited degree programs through an online, asynchronous, competency-based model. Through this unique approach, students accelerate through their learning at their individual pace, fitting their studies into the spaces of their lives. Competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time or “hours” spent in a classroom. One of the most important elements of WGU’s model is customized support for each student; every WGU student is assigned a program mentor – a faculty member with advanced degrees and relevant experience in a field of study. Mentors provide individualized learning support to keep learners motivated and on track to reach their long-term goals and complete their degrees. 

As Pennsylvania’s economy moves forward in a landscape dramatically changed by COVID-19, the old ways of preparing for a career are no longer the most effective approaches to match talent with opportunity. The academic needs of Pennsylvanians continue to evolve and change, as do regional workforce needs and the demand for specific skillsets. Higher education has a duty to help connect talent with professional opportunity, by offering a variety of ways to train Pennsylvania’s workforce with the credentials employers trust.

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 120,000 students, including more than 2,300 students in Pennsylvania. She holds a doctorate in higher education leadership from Ohio University.

A Conversation With: Sarah Williams

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Sarah Williams, 55, recently joined Penn State Dickinson Law as assistant professor of law, and will be teaching federal securities regulation, financial statement fundamentals, professional responsibility and property. She previously served as deputy director and associate director for the division of registration and inspections of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), in addition to several other regulatory agencies.

Williams has a bachelor’s degree in government from Dartmouth College and a law degree from New York University School of Law. She is a member of the New York and District of Columbia bar associations.

She and her husband have two children, one in college and the other currently in the legal field as a paralegal. They live in North Middleton Township.

Q: In your career, what skills have you seen overlap between the fields of law and accounting?

A: Both accounting and law are professions as opposed to businesses. In that vein, they both require significant technical knowledge, but what I think is more important is they both require integrity, loyalty to your clients and a true interest in serving the public good. In the world of financial regulation, the two professions actually work in tandem to promote compliance with applicable securities laws and deliver accurate information to the public about their investments.

How does Penn State Dickinson Law use experiential learning to prepare its students for the realities of law practice, as you noted when you were hired? 

The school employs experiential learning in many ways. The students have the opportunity to join clinics sponsored by the law school that provide child advocacy and other vital services to individuals and groups in the community. The students can also work as interns in legal offices around the country. What truly excites me is the school’s interest in bringing experienced professionals, like myself, into the classroom with the expectation we will deliver both theoretical and practical instruction. So we’re not only teaching fundamental legal theories, we’re delivering concrete, practical skills like how to draft a contingent fee agreement and how to write a certificate of incorporation to create a business. The practice of law is so much more than writing legal memos on how court decisions and statutes apply to particular facts.

What was the most interesting aspect of working in the regulatory side of accounting?

As an attorney at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Association of Securities Dealers and the PCAOB, I was just privileged to be involved in the regulation of many industries. What I found most interesting, while working to oversee auditors at the PCAOB, was the evolution of the regulatory scope. The PCAOB was created by statute in 2002 in response to the financial failures of Enron and other large public companies. When Bernie Madoff’s massive fraud was revealed in 2009, the PCAOB expanded its approach to encompass broker-dealer auditors. I think the most interesting aspect of auditor regulation was the ability to constantly adjust the regulatory approach to address past events and to anticipate future ones. Some of those adjustments were discernable to the public and some were not, but they were constantly happening.

What are you most looking forward to experiencing in central Pennsylvania?

I spent most of my life living in congested and bustling cities. Here, I’m looking forward to waking up to these amazing mountain views, enjoying a slower pace of living and having lots of great ice cream. There are some terrific creameries here in Carlisle. I’m really looking forward to it. Probably too much!

A Conversation With: Gary Kirk

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Gary Kirk joined Dickinson College in February to head up the Center for Civic Learning and Action. A veteran of the higher education field, he came to Central Pennsylvania from Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he was faculty director for community engagement and director of the Pathways Programs in the school of public and international affairs.

He holds two degrees from Virginia Tech: a master’s in public and international affairs and a doctorate in environmental design and planning. His undergraduate degree is in ecology, ethology and evolutionary biology, from New College of Florida.

He and his wife, Carrie, who works for The Nature Conservancy, live in Carlisle. They have two children: Lauren, a senior in college, and Reed, a junior in high school.

Q: How does the Center for Civic Learning and Action prepare students for success after graduation?

A: Dickinson students work directly with people at the forefront of efforts to improve the quality of life in this region, people dedicated to food security, economic equality, environmental sustainability, social justice and access to education, to name a few. These experiences give students the chance to build relationships, better understand the issues communities face, and learn about the institutions and agencies at the core of communities.

Many of the skills students practice in our programs are the same skills employers are seeking — the ability to collaborate and work in teams, communicate with diverse audiences, develop strategies to address complex issues, apply ethical reasoning in decision making and adapt to rapidly changing and unpredictable environments. While our center is focused on preparing students to be successful in their civic lives, our programs also contribute to success in their professional lives.

What is the most interesting aspect of your role?

I get really excited when I am at a table with faculty from seemingly disparate disciplines, leaders of local nonprofit organizations and students. When you bring together a group with very different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, the conversation is often unpredictable and challenging. I think it is these moments when we have the greatest probability of generating new, innovative ways of working together. It’s not easy work and it generally requires a good bit of patience. But the payoff can be big.

What can the business community do to partner with the center?

I don’t need to tell your readers businesses are a vital part of the community. Yet they are often not represented in community discussions about social and cultural issues that affect their own success. I’d encourage businesses to bring their expertise and resources to conversations about the health and resilience of their communities. I am always looking for business partners who want to invest in projects and programs that allow faculty and students to contribute to the public good.

As a central Pa. transplant, what do you enjoy most about the Carlisle community?

Carlisle has welcomed me with open arms and I have enjoyed the chance to interact with people who care about this place and its people. It is a special place due in no small part to the tireless work of active and engaged community members. On a very practical note, I’ve loved being able to walk easily to my meetings with community partners and a growing number of great brewpubs, restaurants, galleries and shops.

Tuition to be set this week for Pa. state universities

Millersville University is one of 14 state-run universities in Pennsylvania. (File photo)
Millersville University is one of 14 state-run universities in Pennsylvania. (File photo) – Amy Spangler

Tuition has gone up at Pennsylvania’s 14 state-run universities each year for the last 20 years.

Will they get a break this year thanks to the 2 percent increase in funding from the state budget, or will increasing costs lead to another hike?

A decision is expected later this week.

The Board of Governors for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education will be meeting over two days this week to decide on a number of issues, including setting tuition rates for the 2019-2020 school year.

Dave Pidgeon, director of public relations for the state system, said the 20-member board will have a number of options before it when it begins meeting Wednesday.

“There is a lot of downward and upward pressure,” Pidgeon said. “The cost of providing education is on the rise.”

He said the 2 percent increase in the state budget was a welcome help, but couldn’t say if it would be enough to hold the line on tuition, which stood at $7,716 for a full-time student for the 2018-2019 school year.

“Pennsylvania is still near the bottom when it comes to public investment in higher education,” he said.

He said as state-run schools, there is an imperative to keep tuition affordable.

“They’re going to have to talk about it,” Pidgeon said of the board, noting that no decisions have been made.

A vote is expected Thursday on the 2019-2020 tuition rates.

The state system includes Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester universities. They enroll more than 100,000 degree-seeking students, with thousands more enrolled in certificate and other career-development programs.

The Whiteboard: Fakers are not just applying to college

The recent bribery scandal involving admission to elite universities is just the latest data point reminding us how careful we must be when we hire people. Credentials don’t tell the whole story.

In case you somehow missed the news, the FBI is bringing charges against wealthy parents, coaches of non-scholarship college sports teams, test administrators and an admissions consultant. Allegedly, the parents paid large sums to the consultant who then used a portion of the money bribing coaches and paying for falsified admissions test results.

The coaches receiving bribes would designate the parents’ children as non-scholarship recruited athletes for sports such as sailing, crew, tennis and water polo, even faking photos of them participating in the sports. The recruited athlete designation was the ticket to jump the line and get admitted, without meeting normal admissions criteria.

There is a stunning lack of integrity exhibited by everyone involved in this scandal. If you define integrity as doing the right thing, even when no one is watching, and not doing things you wouldn’t want reported in the news, this was a pretty spectacular fail. I could easily get a full column out of that. But today I have a different concern.

This FBI investigation netted about 50 people. It might seem like no big deal. But I have to believe that cheating on admissions tests and other workarounds is much more extensive than this. And there are plenty of legal ways for students who aren’t all that qualified academically to get into schools with a boost from wealthy parents.

What these parents are buying, in addition to snob-appeal, is a credential. They want their kids to graduate with credentials, whether they are capable of earning them or not.

To be fair, trampling the truth isn’t confined to the super-wealthy. Others have scammed admissions tests. Once accepted, there is ample evidence of academic cheating and plagiarism in colleges.  Anyone can fabricate credentials and experience on their resume.

How can you rely on anyone’s credentials when you make hiring decisions? The simple answer is that you can’t rely solely on credentials claimed by candidates.

This may seem obvious to some readers, but who hasn’t seen someone with impeccable credentials, who was absolutely not qualified for the job they were given?  In my corporate career, I saw resumes claiming college degrees from people who went to school but never graduated, resumes listing schools that didn’t exist, and grade point averages that couldn’t be confirmed.

There is no fool-proof way to deal with this, but there are several things you can do to help avoid problems. Many businesses obtain employee screening reports from professional background checkers. These reports can check past employment claims, credit history and criminal records.

Academic credentials including degrees and grades are not difficult to verify. If you care that a claimed degree is real, request a transcript to be sent to you directly from the school. For recent graduates, ask for professors or a department head as references.

For jobs requiring specific skill sets, create a test project and ask candidates to complete it. Check whether their thinking, communication and presentation skills reflect the abilities they claim to have.

Last, but not least, use your probationary period wisely. Too often people slip through the probationary period without their skills being tested and evaluated to ensure that a good hire has been made.  There is no excuse for letting that happen.

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Unfortunately, not everyone is who they appear to be. Most people earn their credentials, but some don’t. Do your best to learn who your candidates really are.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at [email protected].