Bringing universities and employers together

While the greater D.C. region has some of the most prestigious universities in the country, and holds some of the most powerful economic forces in the world, these two sides haven’t historically worked together very closely. To learn more about the groups trying to change that, and bring the region to its highest potential, we spoke with Jason Miller, CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership, and Jill Klein, Dean of American University School of Professional and Extended Studies.

ABERMAN: So Jason, I’ll begin with you. What are the current talent issues facing our region?

MILLER: I think it’s important, to answer that question, to step back a little bit and think about the way the workplace is evolving. This is a challenge that companies around the country and around the world are facing. How we work is changing, and it’s changing at a faster pace than it has in the past. Because the way we work is technology enabled, and heavily linked to larger amounts of data. That means every job function, every single job function, requires an amount of digital proficiency, and that’s a skill set that has not been developed at a large enough volume historically.

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At the same time, more specific jobs, digital tech jobs, the demand within companies across industries is just significantly larger than what workforce and the education system currently produces, and the pace of change in those systems needs to move faster than it has been able to do historically. Just to give you one data point, there are about 20,000 graduates with digital technology degrees within our region. There’s over 200,000 job openings demanding those skills. That’s a 10 to one factor. It’s an enormous, enormous challenge. Our region faces it in a more profound way than other parts of the country, but this is a national challenge as well.

ABERMAN: Jill, I know that you’re involved now in doing a lot of activities to train people already in the workforce. This sounds to me like it’s not just technical training though, right?

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KLEIN: Right. One of the things that I’ve been doing at the university for the past 18 years is, I actually teach management information systems, and the role of digitization in any kind of organization, whether it’s public sector, nonprofit, for profit. And the challenge is: how do you simply embed that thing we like to call being a digital native? What do we do to put that into the workplace, not just with people coming out of colleges, but also people who are already in the workplace? So, how do we come back as lifelong learners, to make sure that we are giving our current employees the benefit of that type of learning?

ABERMAN: You know, as I hear you both talk about this, and I think about prior conversations that many of us have had, this sounds more more like the 21st century liberal arts background. Are we basically saying instead of reading Arrowsmith, you have to understand how to code? Is that what we’re getting at here?

KLEIN: I’m not necessarily certain everybody has to code, but I do think that we’re seeing, even in students whose interests might be English, they’re taking coding because they’re curious. If you can write, why not also be able to write code? So, it’s not a requirement, but I do think that what we’re finding is that, as we look at developing the critical thinking skills of our students, we need to make sure that they can also apply that to digital environments.

The role of Liberal Arts has never been more important, because at the end of the day, all of these digital solutions are going to help humans. And so, we need to always remember that somewhere in there is a human being. And so, we need to be able to really think about, what’s the impact of using this technology? How do we improve lives? I’m a real believer that all of this technology ultimately improves our society, but we need to be cautious.

ABERMAN: We need context.

KLEIN: Yes.

ABERMAN: Jason, I’ve spoke with you about this in the past. The whole issue of soft skills, as well. I know that a lot of your members talk a lot about that. How does this play into those issues?

MILLER: Being work ready and having soft skills is absolutely imperative. What we’re saying is not that everybody should be a technician. What we’re saying is that those are important, but you need that alongside a level of digital proficiency, whether you’re going into a human resources function, or whether you’re going to be a computer engineer.

ABERMAN: I assume we’re talking about things like just knowing how to work with Microsoft Windows, or understanding how a cell phone works? What are we talking about when we say digital literacy?

KLEIN: It’s actually even a little bit more than that. I know about eight years ago, I was working with some of my colleagues, and we started to talk about how our students were all thumbs. And I actually started teaching a course on digital citizenship, because I wanted people to start to understand that it isn’t just, can you use your phone, or can you turn on your computer? What we want students to be able to do is, we want them to be able to naturally use those devices. And we also really want them to be able to manipulate information.

Now, one of the things that comes up really clearly in our environment is data, and I think that one of the conversations that the businesses and the universities have really had is the importance of making sure that we’re able to digitally deal with data. And so, that becomes really important. How do you integrate that into this notion of digital literacy? It’s part of it, and it’s a really important part, and a growing part, especially when you start to think about being in the workplace.

ABERMAN: Jason, from a standpoint of economic development, I know this is a big issue that we’re talking about, digital talent and how to address it. Why is it so important for our economic growth to address this issue?

MILLER: Sure. Talent is the currency by which regional economies are competing globally right now. So, the ability to develop, retain, and attract talent is what’s going to differentiate economic performance within the U.S. and around the world. For our region, we’re the one of the largest regional economies globally. Third largest the United States, seventh largest in the world, we have a fantastically strong and deep higher education system, multiple high quality institutions throughout Virginia, the District, and Maryland.

The challenge is, if we’re going to take advantage of the talent pool here, the institutions here, and the assets here, we actually have to be a step ahead. Both because it will allow us to differentiate the talent pool here versus others, and because it reinforces the notion of this region being one of the world’s leading innovation hubs, which is, you need both. You need the system working, and you need the perception of the place, so that you can attract and retain the talent you need in the years and decades ahead.

ABERMAN: And the potentiality is very strong. Before we came on the air, you mentioned that this region ranks very high as the next likely Silicon Valley.

MILLER: Yeah. We’ve got all the assets to do it. You mentioned at the top, the amount of federal research and development. We’ve talked about the strength of the higher education system, that R&D is spread both between direct federal labs, and also the funding that goes into universities in the region, and it’s actually more than goes into universities and any other major region in the country, not even counting the direct federal R&D that’s happening here. The education level is very high, the quality throughout the system is very high, but we aren’t yet performing the way an innovation hub would work, from a startup ecosystem standpoint, just from a top line economic growth standpoint.

If you look at major metropolitan areas, we’ve been one of the slower growth major metropolitan areas in the United States since the recovery from the Great Recession. We need to turbocharge that. We think that really focusing on talent is a way to do it, and it reinforces what businesses need today, but also attracting more jobs as they think about where they’re locating that growth, and where’s the entrepreneur going to start their business.

ABERMAN: The great thing about the Greater Washington Partnership is that it’s a business organization that’s focusing on solving problems like these. Jason and Jill, what is the Capital CoLab?

MILLER: The Capital CoLab is a collaborative between the leading universities and the leading businesses in the capital region, from Baltimore to Richmond, focused on developing talent in the ecosystem, developing and commercializing our technology, and changing the perception of the region, all in the interest of increasing economic performance, and making this one of the world’s leading innovation hubs. The first effort, which we’re really excited about, and American has been a leader on, is the creation of digital technology credentials. This is enabling digital proficiency and improving the quality of the set of skills that students are learning across universities, throughout the entire region. That will strengthen the quality of the talent pool, and better connect students with employers.

KLEIN: In our first segment with you, you had asked this great question that said, well isn’t this just about learning how to use a word application better? And the answer is, what you really need is this intentionality. And what makes this so special is that the universities, and the businesses, really came together, and the businesses said, here’s what we want. And the universities were able to take those what we call knowledge skills and abilities, and really create a very deliberate set of learning outcomes. So now at American University, if we say a student has earned this digital technology credential, it’s going to be the same way that all the other universities are going to do it.

And that level of consistency is really important, because what it does is it signals to the region and our growth that we really understand what it means to put qualified students into the economic engine of the region, and we want our students to stay here by the way. So a big piece here is that we’ve got leading universities, and many of our students will pick up and potentially go to other regions. And quite frankly, you heard Jason say in the beginning, we have over 200,000 job openings. We would like our students to choose to stay here.

And so part of that is giving them these extra motivators, by being able to say we’ll bake this into your educational experience, and this is, by the way, we know the employers want this. So that’s great.

ABERMAN: Is this a common curriculum, or is this going to be a sort of common skill assessment tools? How does this play out?

KLEIN: That’s a great question, because what it really says is, here’s a common set of learning outcomes. And each university really gets to embed those into their curriculum in the way that is most appropriate. So for example, at American University, we’re not creating new curriculum. What we’re doing is, we’re making sure that our existing courses create pathways for students. And we’ve been very intentional in identifying multiple pathways, so no matter what a student’s studies, they can choose this basket of pathways.

So it’s usually about four to six courses, and if they take those courses, we know they will have met the learning outcomes that have been described by the GWP CoLab. That’s really nice. So it’s not, oh, I have to go do this extra. It’s right in the way we teach.

ABERMAN: Jason, this seems to me to be, in some ways, to grow out of a lot of the cyber security credentials that we already have around town. Is that what was in the business community’s mind as you started to formulate this program?

MILLER: So I think the notion of a credential is actually really important, because part of this is about making a market, and connecting students to employers in a clear way. So Jill talked a little bit about this. I think when you say employers, it’s actually really important, this isn’t just a set of technology firms. This is companies across industries, healthcare service providers, the financial services, aerospace and defense. Across industries saying, look, for every one that we hire, here is a set of specific knowledge skills and abilities that we want them to have irrespective of job function. That is the digital technology credential that we’ve called for generalists.

Then for any technical person, there’s a set of skills and capabilities that we want around data analytics, around cyber security, and around A.I. and machine learning, which increasingly are converging across these different jobs. And what many of the employers who have huge demand in that space are saying is, look, I can hire somebody who’s super deep on one specific thing. But if these things are converging over the next three to five years, I need them to have a little bit of fluency across each of these capabilities. So, you have a credential that is baked into existing curriculum, and maybe four courses or so of curriculum at an American University, or VCU, that a student gets, they are marked.

Companies see that the set of students that get that credential, the companies are offering preferential resumé screening, preferential interviews, preferential internships, job shadowing, mentorship opportunities. So the companies are saying look, we want you students to get this, and we’re putting our money where our mouth is, because we’re putting energy and resource and preference behind the students that have these credentials, to both increase the demand and lift the overall talent pool.

ABERMAN: I’ve got to tell you, over the years I’ve sat in meetings as a policy advisor working with various state and local governments, talking with universities and employers about some of these issues. And it’s often a Venus Mars conversation. You know, getting universities to collaborate. What changed? I mean Jason, maybe I should touch you to to get some of that specialness you’ve got. What is it about this moment in time that that’s getting the universities and the business community coordinating?

MILLER: Our aspirations are actually very similar. All of us, businesses and universities, would benefit from this region being one of the world’s leading innovation hubs period. It benefits leading institutions in different ways, but all would benefit. In addition, the day to day, whether it’s the talent that businesses need, or the production of talent from universities, finding ways to collaborate is positive. That doesn’t mean that universities and frankly businesses aren’t competing every day. They are, but some of this frankly, is how do you harness that competition for some of these common goals?

You have universities both learning from each other and pushing themselves internally to move faster, because they see what other universities are doing. You have businesses saying oh, you know what, I better be at the table, or these other leading businesses are going to have, you know, access to talent coming out of the universities. So that has fostered this environment where people are saying, you know what, us actually improving the the the entire market is going to be beneficial for all of us, and this is the way we get there.

KLEIN: It’s interesting to see how we’re communicating. So for example, a number of us in the university community, we’re talking very frequently about, all right, so here’s how we think we’re going to solve this in our university. Because one of the things that we’re really focused on is that, by having this be a credential, it’s something that travels with our alumni forever. It’s going to appear on their American University transcript, so as they move companies and organizations, they’re going to be able to say, I did this, and will over time create ways for them to refresh that capability. Another interesting dynamic, which certainly many people are focused on, is that people want their kids to go to college.

But when the college experience is over, they also want their children to be employed. And so, this really creates a way to bridge that gap without creating this separate skilling space. The fact that we’re able to take this credential definition, and literally embed it in a really broad inclusive way into our curriculum, says that we’re not disrupting the way we want to get our students through their programs. But now we’ve got one more indicator that our student is not only well educated, but well educated to go into the workplace.

ABERMAN: So I’m enjoying this conversation, and I’m fascinated to think about what you’ve accomplished so far, but also what’s in the future. We’ve had a very interesting conversation so far talking about the credentialing, and Jason, in meetings that I’ve been in, where I’ve been exposed to some of your board members, I rarely see them guys as excited individually as they do around this initiative. They almost are pounding the table. What have you seen?

MILLER: They’re unbelievably excited, I think they’re excited both at the speed at which this has moved, which is incredible and I’ll talk a little bit about that, but also the potential that this could mean for the region. I mean, I think all of them. So when I started in this role at the beginning of 2017, I went around and sat down with my board members, we were talking about the different issues the partnership could take on. For them, talent is always front and center, and all of them would talk about, I have this partnership with this university, I have this partnership with that university.

And those are all great, but if you added all of them up, they’re not actually anywhere close to the scale of the problem. I have 35 students in a program at University X in Maryland, and I have 58 students in a program in University Y in Virginia. Those are expensive from a transactional standpoint for a bilateral relationship, and they’re not at scale. This came about because we had a lunch in the beginning of 2018 with nine university presidents and seven Greater Washington Partnership board members. And the question was, we got some great businesses, we got some great universities, should we do something together? I mean, it was a really open agenda. And very quickly I think people got excited about the opportunity. We launched the CoLab within four months. We launched the CoLab four months after an open agenda lunch, and really took on this credentialing effort. So that got launched in April.

Two universities launched the digital tech credential. George Mason and VCU in January, American and two additional universities are launching it this fall. We have additional ones that will likely join that in the fall, and in early 2020, when we’re going to be launching the specialist set of credentials around this year. That is unbelievably fast. I think a lot of businesses see universities as slow in pace, and I think they are overwhelmed by the excitement amongst the universities. They see it as the big need that they have, from a talent standpoint, and the fact that we’ve built this platform, the potential goes well beyond what we’re doing on this digital technology credential.

ABERMAN: Yeah. Without giving away any names, I talked with people that are you know senior CEOs and university presidents, and their eyes literally dance when they start to talk about this initiative. I hope we’ve given it everybody a good understanding, this may be one of the most important momentum building things that we can do right now as a region.

MILLER: Absolutely, absolutely. We’ve had some wins in the region over the last year undoubtedly, and the fact that we’re doing this, we want this to be our leading university business partnership in the country, we want to be a national model for others. And if we’re seen not just from an output standpoint, the benefits we get, but if we’re seen as a national model, that accrues to the perception of this region as being on the leading edge of education, as being on the leading edge of business and being the leading edge of innovation.

KLEIN: Well you know, I have to say, last week, I was in Seattle at a conference, and I this was on lifelong learning. I started to talk about this, and of course I get very excited, and I could see my peers in other regions saying, is this something that we can replicate? I said, well, once we’re really successful, and we know we’ve got this nailed, we’d be really happy to make sure you get there. But it is the pace. Jason and I cannot emphasize enough how fast this moved, and I think when I talk to my peers in the universities, we all kind of pinch each other and say, wow, we really came together with these businesses, and we’re all really excited. We’re excited for our universities, and we’re really excited for our students.

ABERMAN: Well this program, What’s Working in Washington, exists because we want to make sure that everybody understands how dynamic this region is. And it’s been terrific having an opportunity to show our listeners that there’s stuff happening here that’s going to change in a material way how students study, and how employers find the town they need. So thanks very much for joining us today. Jason Miller, the CEO of Greater Washington Partnership.

MILLER: Thank you.

ABERMAN: And Jill Klein, Dean of American University School of Professional and Extended Studies.

KLEIN: Thank you.

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