Keeping up with industry

By Matthew Dembicki

Advice for keeping up with changing industry demands.

Colleges often struggle to determine what industry and business need of their workforce so they can develop the right programs to teach those skills.

But it’s difficult when business and industry is itself trying to determine what their customers want, said Cindy Oretega, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at MGM Resorts International.

“You’re chasing someone who is chasing someone else,” Oretga said during a session at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual convention.

But understanding how business and industry tries to keep up with those consumer demands can offer insights to colleges, she said.

First, understand customers’ expectations and that they will change. “We can’t sit on our laurels,” she said.

Second, define both low-hanging fruit as well as stretch goals.

Finally, remain disciplined and focused. “Don’t chase trends and fads,” Ortega said.

Core competencies remain the same

The hospitality industry keeps close tabs on demands and technology. For example, customers increasingly want local-grown and organic food, which affects how the companies like MGM buys and prepares meals. A more health-conscious clientele has the industry looking at not only exercise equipment but what’s available outside. Demand for sustainable products is even changing how the company builds its facilities. The industry also watches advancements in automation, which can lead to room-delivery robots and self-driving vehicles.

How does this affect community colleges preparing the workforce for those jobs, especially if they might soon disappear?

“Most of the core competencies we are looking for in our workforce will remain the same,” Ortega said.

The good news is that community colleges already understand this, so she is not concerned whether they can develop such employees.

No more job titles

At Microsoft, the feeling is that technology will augment rather than replace humans, said Merisa Heu-Weller, an attorney at Microsoft who focuses on global employment strategy and public policy.

Companies are interested in employees who have both technical acumen and ingenuity, she said. For example, strawberry farms are now using sensors to monitor crops as well as predictive analytics. Those farms want employees who can handle the technical parts of the job as well as develop new ideas.

“The way we are working is changing,” said Heu-Weller, who serves on the Bellevue College board of trustees. “We’re not going to be tied so much to our jobs. That’s the key disruption that’s coming.”

Businesses want community colleges to be partners and pitch ideas on how best to prepare workers for those jobs, she said.

Are you ready for disruption?

Aside from keeping up with employers’ needs, community colleges are facing more competition from new providers of education and training, said Jerry Weber, president of Bellevue College in Washington. They include DigiPen from the Institute of Technology, MicroSoft Virtual Academy, LinkedIn, Smartly and edX. There are also traditional institutions that are investing heavily in the digital realm to reach students outside their service area, such as Arizona State University.

Complicating things further, Weber said that some companies no longer require degrees for entry-level jobs, including Apple, Google, IBM, Starbucks, Costco, Chipotle, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Bank of America.

Weber noted that his son applied for a job in Silicon Valley where the company gave him a database project to complete in a week as a way to assess his skills.

Ortega noted that such assessments can help to determine whether applicants have the one skill all employers want — effective problem-solving.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

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