New England has a rich history of innovation and economic prosperity due, in part, to the fact that our region is home to some of the nation’s most prestigious higher education institutions as well as a wide array of other postsecondary offerings. As the nation’s economy has evolved to be knowledge-based and technology-driven, New England is well-positioned to produce the knowledge workers to fuel future growth. However, the accelerated pace of change in global markets, technological innovations and rapid increases in the educational attainment of other countries, coupled with the rising cost of college and a stagnation in regional population growth, have all culminated in something of a workforce crisis that has eroded our leadership position and threatened our ability to fully seize the opportunities that the new economy offers.
It is this looming crisis that the Commission on Higher Education & Employability has worked to address head-on. Over the past several months, Commission members from the six New England states have grappled with the challenges of more fully understanding the needs of employers and finding a way to match that with a supply of workers who are ready to add value and truly contribute in the workplace. Whereas, historically, colleges and universities were primarily charged with graduating students who had gained great content knowledge in their respective fields of study, the new world order of employers and of parents paying rising college bills demands that newly minted graduates also possess a far more comprehensive set of skills, personal attributes and technological savvy than ever before—skills that ensure they are fully “employable” upon graduation.
As we learned in our Commission deliberations, many institutions of higher learning have fully risen to the employability challenges and are reinventing themselves to better serve both students and employers through the creation of more timely, relevant curricula, more comprehensive career services and internship offerings, and more in-depth focus on the personal attributes critical to success in today’s economy—including what are often referred to as “soft skills” like communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. And while there are a host of institutions leading the way, our higher education enterprises as a whole and the many entities that regulate, fund and accredit them, are simply not changing fast enough.
As the former state economist for three Maine governors and the current president of a small, nonprofit, enrollment-driven college that has neither public funding nor a huge endowment to protect us from the unprecedented market disruptions and demographic forces, I live daily in the eye of the impending storm. While it is easy to be lulled into thinking that all is calm and will be fine, I am fully aware that the worst of the tumult is yet to come.
Given that nearly 60% of the students that Thomas College serves are “first-generation” college-goers who come from modest means, it is absolutely imperative that the college experience we provide equip them with the full complement of knowledge, skills and personal attributes that ensures they are fully employable. To hold ourselves and our students accountable, we offer a suite of guarantees, including one of the nation’s first job guarantees. To qualify for the guarantee, our students need to keep up their grades (knowledge), participate in professional and career development programming and an internship (skills), and get involved in leadership development and community service over their four years (personal attributes).
Since our very survival depends on our ability to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace from our competitors by being nimble and innovative, Thomas College has focused on modernizing our programs to leverage our distinct areas of expertise and to better meet the demands of the new economy. For example, over the past three years, Thomas College has added a degree in digital marketing management in order to keep our marketing and business programs timely. We have evolved our teacher-training program through our Center for Innovation in Education to fully integrate the arts into a more traditional STEM curriculum (STEAM), to model and teach proficiency-based learning, and to provide opportunities for future teachers to experiment with cutting-edge technologies, including classes in videogame design, so our graduates will be able to engage their young, technology-savvy students and leverage learning through technology.
New cybersecurity master’s
We’ve also created a program to inspire innovation and design thinking with our newly opened Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation, bringing resources to both students and area entrepreneurs looking to open their own businesses. And in fall 2018, we will add a master’s degree in cybersecurity. This accelerated, highly flexible program will provide workers with unlimited opportunities to further their careers; more than 200,000 job vacancies in the field are projected nationally. Our students will gain a comprehensive understanding of the potential cyberthreats as well as the skills to secure, protect and defend valuable data, whether serving the biggest corporation or the smallest public school or police station.
And last, but certainly not least, our Professional and Career Services Office offers a host of other skill-enhancement programming, including our highly innovative Golf Guarantee. The vast majority of Thomas students hail from humble roots, and have most likely never set foot on a golf course. Given that a tremendous amount of networking, fundraising and business is transacted out on the fairways, our students could be at a distinct disadvantage to their wealthier peers. Introducing them to the game of golf simply gives them another tool in their employability toolkit.
Finally, to fully showcase the wide array of knowledge, skills and personal attributes that make our graduates employable, Thomas has developed a co-curricular transcript that allows our students to document and demonstrate their leadership development, community service, internship and job shadow experience. These, in addition to certifications and trainings in areas such as diversity awareness will ensure that they will be a great colleague and a valuable addition to whatever workforce team they join.
Thomas College is just one small example of the great innovations that are happening across the spectrum of tremendous colleges and universities that are preparing our region’s workforce.
New England has long been the epicenter of higher education and innovation. With a renewed focus on employability, the region will undoubtedly meet this challenge and emerge even stronger, fueling growth and prosperity for years to come.
Laurie Lachance is president of Thomas College. She is member of NEBHE’s Commission on Higher Education & Employability.