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Monday, August 13, 2012

Degrees of debt: Grad preparedness concern for education, business officials

Today’s graduates continue to leave college and struggle to find work. The business world, meanwhile, is worried it won’t find skilled workers to fill open positions as the state’s workforce ages.

It’s a paradox that experts say can only be resolved by better communication and partnerships between higher education institutions and the business world.

Tailoring programs and curricula to skills that businesses actually need is becoming more common among community colleges and for-profit schools, but the question remains: Can the state’s public colleges and universities do more to help their graduates find jobs?

University of New Hampshire President Mark Huddleston thinks so.

Huddleston said all state education institutions need to look for more innovative ways to help prepare the young workforce.

The traditional response would be to hire more career planning associates, he said, but that’s likely not in the cards for UNH.

Huddleston is more intrigued by an idea from a friend at Harvard, who has been rolling out career services online, including mentoring for students using an online network of contacts.

“Think of LinkedIn and wedded to other online services to not only guide you in a career path, but provide some active assistance as you look for your first job,” he said. “That kind of attack is not only more efficient from our perspective in not hiring any many people, but it’s more effective for a generation that looks to computers and the Web for solutions much more readily.”

Huddleston and officials at other state schools hope these kinds of advances in career planning could help bridge the gap identified by business owners across the country.

More than half of today’s business leaders said they face a major challenge when recruiting non-managerial employees with the skills and training their companies need, despite the high levels of unemployment, according to a 2011 report from Corporate Voices for Working Families and Civic Enterprises, a nonprofit organization that aims to create policy solutions that benefit working families.

The study also found that businesses and educational institutions often disagree about what skills a young professional should have when entering the workforce.

It’s nothing college advisors haven’t heard before, and many in the state agree that a student’s success after college often has less to do with the school they attended and more to do with the opportunities they take advantage of while there.

“We’re very well aware of all the reports,” said Patricia Halloran, the executive director of Keene State College’s career advising center. “I think that it varies from student to student. … It’s a generalization, but there is some accuracy there, certainly.”

It’s never good to hear that the state’s graduates are not prepared for the workforce, Halloran said, but it’s something that colleges and universities are actively working to combat.

In many cases, she said, the issue isn’t creating more resources for students, but making sure students are aware of them.

At Keene State, the career center provides one-on-one advising sessions for interested students and can help them build resumes, conduct a job search, learn how to network and find internship opportunities.

The college hosts a number of career fairs throughout the school year and has an employee whose primary responsibility is to generate and maintain relationships with area employers.

“Our job is to make students aware that these opportunities exist on campus, in the community and in the classrooms,” Halloran said. “That there are potential platforms to develop the professional skills employers are looking for.”

University of New Hampshire internship coordinator and career advisor Jason Whitney sees it the same way.

He said the university pays close attention to feedback from business leaders and aims to help students react to that feedback.

But, like Halloran, he said it often depends on how invested a student is in taking full advantage of every opportunity the school offers.

“If you’re taking part in internships, you have exposure to the professional world sooner, you’ve been around the block,” he said. “Those are the students who are more competitive, who get the job offers first.”

UNH’s Advising and Career Center offers help with resume and cover letter writing, job searching, and interviewing skills.

The university hosts at least one career and internship fair each semester, and career center officials visit classrooms to talk with students about the importance of getting internships and job experience before heading out into the workforce.

Those classroom meetings reached more than 7,200 students last year alone, Whitney said, and also address skills many employers have said young people lack, such as professional communication skills, professional dress and working with a team.

The office’s work to promote its services seems to be paying off, he said.

While business leaders may still report a struggle to hire skilled workers, Whitney reported an increased number of students who seem to realize that getting a job in today’s economy is not a given.

“We’ve seen firsthand the impact the economy has had on students,” he said. “They’ve seen that this is a lot harder than they thought it would be, that no one owes them a job. It’s a huge reality check for a lot of people.”

This spring’s job fair attracted a record number of students and the university’s job search site, Wildcat Careers, grew from only 1,100 registered students in 2005 to 9,000 registered today, Whitney said.

The state’s community college system is already moving to align its curriculum with the needs of the business community around the state.

Nashua Community College and the other six colleges in the state’s system will use a three-year, $19.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop programs in connection with New Hampshire businesses in advanced manufacturing.

Four of the seven schools have already started delivering the training programs to students, and the three others, including Nashua, will begin the initiative this fall.

“It’s a new and exciting opportunity for New Hampshire,” said Shannon Reid, communications director for the Community College System of New Hampshire. “Companies out there say they have job openings but lack an applicant pool with the particular skills needed to fill these jobs. Through this grant and other efforts, we intend to fill the skills gap and prepare New Hampshire residents with skills to get these jobs and help the economy grow and emerge from the recent recession.”

The programs go a long way toward remedying another disconnect between the business and education world identified in The Great Divide report.

According to the report, the vast majority of business leaders surveyed believe the term “college” means a four-year degree. Only 13 percent also think of a two-year associate’s degree, and only 10 percent believe college includes a career training program.

But the study found that by the end of this decade, about an equal percentage of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree as training programs and associate’s degrees.

In Nashua, the work readiness program will ensure that students are ready for those opportunities, training students for specific skills in precision machining, applied manufacturing, machine tool operation and computer-aided manufacturing, Reid said.

Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chris Williams said he’s happy to see local institutions taking the necessary steps toward closing the gap between students’ skills and what businesses are looking for.

Communication between the business world, education officials and young graduates is crucial to the state’s ability to build the workforce it needs, he added.

“We can always do better,” he said. “And I do think that our economy is better served, both regionally and at the state level, when university and college presidents are sitting down across the table from company CEOs and directly engaging them in dialogue on partnerships between higher education and the private sector.”

Staff writer Cameron Kittle contributed to this report. Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or Also follow Curtis on Twitter (Telegraph_DC).