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Higher ed pivotal to meeting workforce needs

Thursday, December 1, 2016

See the original article in the Pittsburgh Business Times here.

My inauguration as the eighth president of Robert Morris University took place Oct. 7, but I actually started on the job in February. Since then, I’ve talked with dozens of CEOs and other business leaders representing Pittsburgh’s top employers. Those conversations have been invaluable in helping my leadership team and me set a course for RMU’s future, and have drawn into focus what all the local colleges and universities can do to ensure the local economy remains vibrant.

For one, these employers need highly skilled workers. At the invitation of RMU’s board of trustees, which includes several of those CEOs, representatives of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development briefed our leadership council and deans council on the “Inflection Point” report released earlier this year. The numbers are eye-popping: The region will see about 290,000 workers retire over the next decade, while 1.2 million employees will need to be hired or “upskilled” during that period.

Those are daunting figures for employers, but they present a fantastic opportunity for higher education. High-demand fields include financial technology, health services and cybersecurity, and good-paying jobs in these sectors are likely to go unfilled unless schools such as RMU make a concerted effort to educate a workforce with the relevant skills, experiences and competencies to fill them.

What’s more, the Allegheny Conference team told us that businesses want employees who are customer-service focused, agile and nimble, and have leadership potential. We often refer to those as “soft skills,” but to me, they are the even-harder skills. To paraphrase the iconic iPhone commercial, RMU has an app for that — our Communication Skills program, adapted to each student’s major, which employers and organizations have praised for allowing our graduates to make an immediate impact in the workplace.

But the “Inflection Point” report tells only part of the story. Employers’ needs go beyond new hires. Mid- and upper-level managers are looking for ways to improve their capacity to lead, function and thrive in an ever-changing marketplace.

CEO after CEO, from myriad industries, have told me their companies don’t have the capacity or resources to prepare employees for increasing levels of responsibility. They need universities such as RMU to provide those opportunities, and we will not let them down, whether through executive-style master’s and doctoral programs, specialized certificates in fields such as additive manufacturing and energy, or programs tailored for individual employers.

We have a successful model in the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at RMU, which has provided nonprofits with advanced education, professional development, specialized training and capacity building since 1999.

During my inaugural address, I pledged that RMU will be the preferred strategic partner for corporations, organizations and professionals in the Pittsburgh region. As I assured our faculty, our close ties to the business world do not detract from our role in educating our graduates to live productive lives as thoughtful, engaged citizens. In fact, our relationship with the business world actually enhances our ability to do so and is a model for other institutions to follow.

Chris Howard is the eighth president of Robert Morris University in Moon Township. He joined the board of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development on Oct. 19.