The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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January 10, 2011

Ready, set, work: Colleges adopt to new workplace standards

— “From the neck down we’re all minimum wage workers.”

It’s one of Denny Dotson’s favorite quotes. The Mankato foundry owner said that with more technical skills needed for even old-line businesses like his, how potential employees are trained and prepared is increasingly important.

“Most of the plant is automatic equipment. You’re operating pretty expensive pieces of machinery that require real skills,” Dotson said.

How to best train college students, as well as retraining older workers, has become an increasingly important topic for colleges and employers. The challenge grows with the fast changes in business.

Less than a decade ago, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter didn’t exist. Today they are an integral part of many businesses’ operations. Some analysts say that by the time a college freshman class of today graduates, half of them will be taking jobs that haven’t been created yet.

Laura Bloomberg, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and the Humphrey Institute, said colleges are changing their approach  by not only teaching skills for a specific job, but grooming graduates who know how to approach new challenges.

“You prepare them to say how do we look at the problem. They don’t have to have all the answers, they need to pull together the team that can address the problem.

“There is little in society that needs to be done at a high level that does not require building coalitions, building partnerships, working across boundaries,” said Bloomberg, who also heads the Center for Integrative Leadership, which promotes cross-sector leadership among business, government and civil sectors.

Higher expectations

In the past year, Dotson has added 52 jobs, bringing employment to 144. Dotson HR Manager Kelly Peterson said the increasing technical skills needed has prompted the company to be more thorough in its job applicant screening.

“We made it more objective. We added a matrix that we score applicants with.”

Applicants start out taking a 45 minute basic skills test. That score, plus added points for education levels and work history help develop the list of finalists, who are interviewed by supervisors.

“Our criteria before wasn’t bad, but we focused on letters of recommendation and a resume or letter about yourself, which are nice but not objective,” Peterson said. “I’m cynical about references. I’ve been burned.”

Dotson said the more thorough applicant review process is paying off for his company. “The results are pretty positive. You have bright people with short learning curves and the supervisors are saying, wow, get me more of those.”

Hands-on experience

Colleges are responding to the clamor for well-prepared workers through programs that give hands-on experience and general problem-solving skills.

Aaron Budge, chair of the civil and mechanical engineering department at Minnesota State University, said they now focus more on applied learning.

“We want to produce shovel ready engineering students that can hit the ground running and ready to go to work,” Budge said.

The college now has senior design groups in which students learn the complexities of working together on real-life projects. This year’s group is designing a potential trail system around Lake Washington, a project being promoted by a Lake Washington residents’ group.

“They work along with engineers and contractors and consultants in the field, rather than just staring at computer screens,” Budge said.    

Liberal arts

Bethany Lutheran College President Dan Bruss said a broad liberal arts education is invaluable in preparing four-year students for the changing marketplace.

“One of the things I think we do really well is that we have a deliberate liberal arts focus. I think, down the road it suits our students very well for adaptability,” Bruss said. “The jobs our graduates will do for the bulk of their lives probably don’t exist today. So being able to think logically, communicate well, switch course, that’s huge.”

Tom Custer, interim vice president for academic affairs at Bethany, said surveys from employers always show their top requirements are for employees with good communication skills and clear thinking, something gained in a liberal arts education.

“There’s also the aspect of integrity — creating sound intellectual and moral habits,” Custer said. “As a Christian school we take that very seriously. We think it’s a good guide for faith and for life.”

Bruss said that being a small college allows Bethany to be more nimble in changing curriculum to meet the demands of the business world. Bethany, which went from a two-year to four-year college 10 years ago, now has 19 majors and will be adding more.

Cross-training needed

Tailoring curriculum to meet changes in business and training students to do a wider variety of things has been a focus at South Central College in North Mankato.

Marsha Danielson, dean of economic development at SCC, said businesses want employees who are cross-trained to increase efficiency and improve communications.

“The trend we’re seeing is businesses are continuing to do more with less.”

In healthcare, for example, SCC has added programs for health unit coordinators.

“ISJ contacted us to retrain their staff for better coordination and communication for the benefit of their patients. Unit coordinators need the medical background but they also need training in how to get information to the nurses, physicians and all the people who need it to provide more coordinated care.”

The same concept is at work with the SCC mechatronics program in which students are trained in a variety of engineering-related skills.

“Businesses don’t want to call an electrician and a computer person and a hydraulic engineer to fix equipment. Mechatronics is cross-trained maintenance engineer training.”

The mechatronics program, which will have its first graduating class this year, is funded in part by a consortium of area businesses.

Ann (Splinter) Anderson, SCC marketing and public relations director, said the college keeps current on the changing business landscape through advisory committees of area business people. “And a lot of our faculty do internships on their off time to stay current on their industry,” Anderson said.

Soft skills often weak

Annie Bennett, manager of the Jeane Thorne employment agency in Mankato, said recent college graduates face a number of challenges in this tight economy.

“One of the biggest challenges with kids out of college is they may have great skills, but they’re lacking the soft skills, the people skills.”

She coaches applicants on things like keeping eye contact, body language and paying attention to the way they dress. And things like tattoos and piercings can work against job applicants.

“Employers might not intentionally discriminate, but it’s those little things that are noticed,” Bennett said.

“The attention to detail you give to your appearance is the attention you’ll give to your job.”

Bennett said recent grads are also handicapped because of a larger pool of available workers and companies that can be more choosey.

“We’re getting a lot of calls for accounting, but the businesses all want someone with three to five years experience.”

And older people are facing their own problems because potential employers may view them as overqualified and believe they won’t be happy in a job below what they were used to.

“But I tell (employers) that those people have already adjusted their expectations.”

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