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Education Outlook: Conference connects businesses, schools

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Taking the stage before an audience of around 200 local business and education stakeholders, Missouri Higher Education Commissioner Zora Mulligan said she’s been impressed with the development of Springfield, particularly downtown, since her college days in the 1990s. The Jefferson City resident recalled a time when downtown wasn’t a place to hang out, especially at night.

“It’s good to see the thoughtful way that individual business owners have been able to play their part and move forward with a plan to revitalize that part of town, which continues to grow out from there,” she said. “It’s really been astonishing.”

With bachelor’s degrees earned in political science and psychology at Drury University, Mulligan is no stranger to Springfield.

The keynote speaker at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Education Outlook returned to her college town Oct. 3 to cover topics ranging from workforce challenges to the changing higher education landscape in an extended conversation with Ryan Mooney, vice president of economic development with the chamber.

Mulligan also was among state representatives in town in July at a Talent for Tomorrow workshop – one of several regional gatherings in a statewide initiative to reshape workforce development. At the chamber’s Education Outlook event, she reviewed the initiative’s origins, which started as a workforce needs assessment, eventually developing into a partnership with the state Department of Economic Development.

“In Missouri, we are a national leader in terms of percent of our students who graduate from high school, but we lag significantly in percentage that go on to college,” she said, suggesting the state invest in programs designed to meet workforce needs.

At the July workshop, she noted of every 100 Missourians in eighth grade, 79 graduate high school, but only 55 go on to college, with just 27 graduating.

She said student financial aid needs to be re-examined, as most programs are designed to specifically serve people just barely out of high school.

“There are resources and scholarship programs, but we also have funds. We have $100 million that we spent at the state level for financial aid,” Mulligan said. “It’s been a long time since anybody has looked seriously at the effectiveness of that total spending. I think we haven’t asked ourselves seriously, ‘Who are we not serving in these programs?’”

Mulligan points to internships as a key in addressing workforce gaps.

While internships can help prepare people for work, she noted they also can teach job hunters where they don’t want to go work.

Speaking to the audience filled with employers, Mulligan said, “You probably have to ask yourself, ‘Are we really offering an internship or are we filling a part-time, lowest level labor opening with college students?’”

Internships are supposed to educate students about what it will take to tackle a job, not just grunt work, she said.

Denise Silvey, human resources manager with Paul Mueller Co. (OTC: MUEL), said her employer works to ensure the educational attainment is matching workforce needs. Students from Missouri State University, Drury and, in the summer, Missouri University of Science and Technology, regularly fill intern posts for the company.

“They’re part of the talent pipeline we’re looking to develop,” she said after the event. “It’s been really good for us. I believe we have been consistently moving them in toward higher and higher levels.”

Paragon Architecture Inc. offers internships year-round because of the abundance of universities and colleges in the community, said Brad Erwin, principal architect.

“We’re able to capture some high-level talent throughout the entire year,” said Erwin, who attended the Education Outlook event. “It’s really contributing to our projects, but they’re able to – because of their engagement throughout the year – bring in a totally different perspective and take our firm to a different level. We’re able to learn as much from them as they are from us.”

Finding educational opportunities to develop workplace soft skills should be part of an ongoing conversation between businesses and schools, Mulligan said. That involves, in part, discussing what kind of student the schools should be graduating or the skills they need to be taking into the workforce.

“Business leaders, in particular, need to work closely with our educational institutions in an honest way,” she said. “I would encourage the business owners … to look for ways to have those deeper, quality conversations of what you really need.”

The chamber’s 2018 Outlook series concludes Dec. 5 with the Manufacturing Outlook event at DoubleTree Hotel.

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