Forty-four years ago, the nation’s colleges and universities faced many of the same challenges they face now. Now, like then, American institutions are pursuing research funds to head off international universities that threaten to beat them in science, technology, engineering and math.
That was, at least in part, the incentive to form the Washington, D.C.-based Grants Resource Center, which hosted a proposal development workshop last week for members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
“It’s interesting that we’re still dealing with the same issues. STEM education is at the center of our concern, international competitiveness continues to be the center of our concern,” said GRC executive director Richard Dunfee. “GRC institutions go after funding in every category in every area and seek research-sponsored program activities from every agency in the federal government.”
In her keynote address, Jane Oates, assistant secretary for the U.S. Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration, discussed the importance of aligning business and education, particularly in the areas of manufacturing innovations and technology.
“Manufacturing and high technology are locked at the hip. You cannot advance manufacturing in this country without a skilled workforce that absolutely knows how to use technology to make things and to keep things running,” said Oates.
According to 2010 Treasury statistics, American companies spent $83 billion to employ people in foreign countries because they couldn’t find qualified workers at home. These include jobs in robotics, chemical and mechanical engineering, computer data management and system analyses. Based on visits made to several manufacturing floors during the past 18 months, Oates has learned that firms are desperate for people who can provide these skills.
Oates said that two-year institutions should take a similar approach. In addition to making students more employable, this helps to ensure that they will complete their studies whether they are in two- or four-year programs or pursuing graduate degrees.
“They’re going to see that the longer they stay at our institution and get something that’s recognizable in the work force, the more money they’re going to make,” said Oates. “They’ll stay longer and get that degree.”
The Labor Department is currently administering the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Capacity Building Grant program. Oates says her goal is to work with the Education Department, employers, community colleges and other stakeholders to use the funds to create curriculums that will make graduates more attractive to employers and a better fit for the jobs available in their communities.
“We need to bring these employers in under this grant, help them write the curriculum with the experts that are on the campuses,” she said. This would prevent colleges and employers from “whining” about students not having essential skills. “It’s going to be a win-win. Students are going to get jobs with employers [who] are going to be happy with you and come to you for other things, and your students are going to be alumni who write checks,” says Oates.
Martha J. Kanter, an Education Department under secretary, also urged colleges and universities to partner with local employers.
“We’re looking at education and labor in a very different way than probably has been done in the past,” she explained. “We’re looking at an integrated, seamless system where we want everyone to get an education beyond high school and to be successful in the workplace.” She added that it is important for schools to think about how they can use federal grant opportunities to leverage such partnerships instead of operating as disconnected silos.
Kanter also advised schools to consider grant programs like Promise Neighborhoods and Investing in Innovation that will empower them to serve as anchor institutions along with business and invigorate the STEM pipeline.
“We’re looking to grow those kinds of partnerships and you will see us focused on innovation and productivity,” Kanter said, adding that institutions should also focus on building efficiency and productivity models as well as their capacity. The latter will be particularly important as elementary, secondary and post-secondary institutions suffer budget reductions.