By Katy Spence
Whether you’re on the job or on the battlefield, no amount of classes or training can prepare you for the real deal. University of Montana (UM) President Seth Bodnar knows from experience, both as an administrator in higher education and from being deployed with the U.S. Army’s First Special Forces Group.
“When you were in the combat theater, literally every day, half the techniques and procedures were being updated and shared via secure internet between company commanders about how to adapt IEDs, to combat IEDs and develop new ways to solve problems,” Bodnar said. “It was an unbelievable comparison to spend time in theater and then go back for your next training course, where they’re still teaching the same curriculum that they’ve done for 30 years.”
Bodnar said a similar problem can arise in academia, as curricula can adapt too slowly to address an evolving workscape.
“By one estimate, over 60 percent of children in elementary school will end up working in completely new types of jobs that do not exist today,” Bodnar said.
UM launches Tech Skills for Tomorrow
Combined with the fact that around 10,000 Americans are reaching retirement age each day, UM’s administration must partner with Montana businesses to anticipate and address workforce needs, Bodnar told a group of Montana business leaders, investors, and professors at the Oct. 28 launch of Tech Skills for Tomorrow (TST), an initiative aimed to bolster UM’s education and training opportunities.
The initiative sprang out of a conversation that began last year with the MHTBA Missoula meeting in November, Bodnar said, and will focus on four core tenets: programs, partners, pathways, and pipelines.
“The feedback and recommendations we heard [at the Montana High Tech Business Alliance roundtable] helped lead us to more explicitly and actively pursue these 4 Ps, and to more actively rely upon employer input regarding workforce needs,” Bodnar said.
Working with new partners to develop innovative education and training opportunities for students of all ages will better prepare them to find lucrative work in a changing world.
UM has already made strides in the pursuit to make students “tomorrow-proof.”
- The university has partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Missoula College to create certificates in Cloud Computing and Fiber Splicing, both of which aim to address in-demand hard skills cited by employers.
- The launch of UM’s Innovation Factory represents an investment in interdisciplinary studies and entrepreneurship that can foster critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. Through IF, the university is also developing a Game Design degree track, the first of its kind in Montana.
- A new software engineering concentration under UM’s Computer Science bachelor’s degree will be available next fall.
- The university’s ongoing training partnership with Cognizant ATG will continue to train participants in areas like consulting, systems analysis and design, data analytics, and more.
Bodnar said that he kept coming back to one question as he worked with his staff to push TST forward: “Are we putting our students in those situations where they have to solve problems without an easy solution?”
The TST initiative was presented as part of a speaker panel featuring Bodnar; Michael Punke, Vice President, Global Public Policy for Amazon Web Services; Galen Hollenbaugh, Commissioner of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry; Christina Henderson, executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance; and Grant Kier, executive director of the Missoula Economic Partnership.
Hollenbaugh said the state mirrors the national retirement trend as 100,000 Montanans are set to retire from the workforce in the next 10 years but only 90,000 will enter it to replace them. In addition, as employer needs change, current employees may need training, too.
“Not only do we have a workforce that isn’t prepared to come into the jobs that we have, we have a workforce that needs some training,” Hollenbaugh said, suggesting that upskilling those currently in the workforce and providing apprenticeships could be addressed through TST.
Alliance members talk with Bodnar on Oct. 30
A couple of days later at the Oct. 30 Montana High Tech Business Alliance meeting in Missoula, Bodnar talked with Alliance members and professors in a more candid setting.
David Hermann, general manager of Eyehear Technology Group, said his company can teach new employees technical skills, but finding employees with critical thinking skills is more challenging.
“Having someone who has the mindset to troubleshoot and figure things out and problem-solve is really more valuable than almost anything else,” Hermann said. “I don’t know how you teach that.”
Bodnar said that falls under one of the TST Ps — programs. Internships, study abroad, and programs like the Franke Global Leadership Initiative, a leadership and international experience program, can help students work with diverse teams to address real-world problems. He added that the popular skills-based approach to education neglects these experiences and can leave students sorely unprepared for challenges in the workforce.
“[Some people] think that education should just be transactional skills-based,” Bodnar said. “The reality is those skills change in a very short amount of time.”
In addition to soft skills, employees are looking for candidates who have a wider understanding of different industries and can work well between teams. Nate Sann, product marketing manager at onX, said this is an issue for his team, and it’s not only a matter of training but also a matter of awareness.
“We have a whole bunch of people in marketing but who are not technically savvy, so they come to me, and I have to go solve their technical problems,” Sann said. “There’s plenty of millennials in that age group that have those disparate skill sets, but I don’t think they know that there’s a job that kind of allows them to do all those things at once.”
Sann said the company has had to recruit out-of-state to find team members with the broad experience and awareness necessary to navigate onX’s fast-growing team.
Bodnar said this presents an opportunity to develop essential skills courses with input from Alliance members.
“I think you take an English major, who can write, who can communicate, who can synthesize thoughts, you equip them with some basic tools, and they can learn quickly, they can be pretty successful in a company like onX,” Bodnar said.
As the meeting came to a close, Kier asked for some insight into what has been most surprising to Bodnar about academia as well as how the business community can support him going forward.
“Things are slow to change in higher ed,” Bodnar, who has experience in tech companies like GE, said. “You can change it over time, and you can adapt it… [but] we have to supplement the education within that discipline with other broadening experiences.”
Bodnar added that the current resume process could be improved to give more candidates a chance, even if they don’t check every single box on an application.
“Students don’t really know how to how to talk about their experiences in a way that you understand them, and you’re missing good talent,” Bodnar said, adding that the university is also looking for ways to better help students tell their stories.
“We need to create students who can think, who can create, who can adapt,” Bodnar said. “There are pretty tangible skills that we want to make sure our students know… We do want to adapt our curriculum, to make sure that we’re not just living in the world as it was 20 years ago.”
Bodnar said his administration is interested in continuing to work closely with the Alliance and Montana business leaders to ensure students are well-equipped for the future. Other opportunities discussed at the meeting included visiting local employers as part of the freshman experience and developing certificates that can address immediate workforce needs.
Be on the lookout for more meetings and invitations to collaborate with educational institutions in the state.
About the Author: Katy Spence is the Communications Director for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and has an Environmental Journalism Master’s Degree from the University of Montana.
About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an nonpartisan nonprofit association of highly-engaged high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information, visit MTHighTech.org or subscribe to our biweekly newsletter.