Episode 71 - Job-Ready Education

In this week's episode, President Wyatt and Scott Meredith spend some time with Stephen Lisonbee, SUU's Executive Director of Regional Services. They discuss the Utah Legislature's focus on training the rising generations to fill technical and skill-heavy jobs, such as engineering, medicine, business and education.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I’m joined in-studio today on a beautiful, early fall morning by President Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve. It’s great to be here today. 

Meredith: It is great to be here. 

Wyatt: Beautiful day. 

Meredith: You were just mentioning that this is one year to the day of the longest leg of your epic hike that you made last year. 

Wyatt: Well, yean. [Laughs]

Meredith: Do you want to remind our listeners about this and how glad you are to be back? Or do you what to skip over that? Is it too scarring a memory for you? 

Wyatt: [Laughs] No, it’s…yeah. Right now, in fact, if I’m looking at my clock right, in seven minutes, Bill Heyborne, Johnny Oh and I crossed the finish line after a 53 mile run. 

Meredith: Wow. In one day, you had to do it all in…

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Meredith: In a 24 hour period. You guys went all day and night. 

Wyatt: I’ll tell you, it felt nice waking up in a nice, comfortable bed this morning thinking about all of those poor guys out there, because they’re out there right now. Anyway…

Meredith: In previous podcasts, we’ve talked a little bit about return on investment, we’ve talked about how much more money you make over a lifetime in graduating versus not graduating from a university, we’ve talked a little bit about job readiness, about how the liberal arts help us develop soft skills, but we’re going to jump into that just a little bit further this morning. There’s a recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education that talks about how universities can help students prepare. Because one of the things that we know is that we know that our current crop of students that are coming in a freshman are more interested than they have ever been at the university helping them prepare to go out and get a job. And so, we’ve invited a special guest here from our staff to talk with us about that. Why don’t you give him an introduction? 

Wyatt: Yeah, we’re delighted to have Stephen Lisonbee here with us today. Stephen is the Executive Director of Regional Services at Southern Utah University, a title that undersells what you’re doing, Stephen. 

Stephen Lisonbee: [Laughs]

Wyatt: Welcome. 

Lisonbee: Thank you, it’s wonderful to be here. 

Wyatt: Yeah, well and what an interesting topic. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: You know, we have not yet moved beyond the shock that everybody still feels from the Great Recession. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: And there is a continuing interest in challenging universities to better prepare students for the workforce. And that creates some pretty interesting discussions on campus. Everything ranging from “We’re not a technical school” to “We should be more a technical school.”

Meredith: Yeah. Everything from “How dare you” to “How dare you” on both sides. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Meredith: Yeah, a little bit. 

Wyatt: And it kind of depends on the discipline of the person because we all see the world so differently. But, Stephen, welcome. 

Lisonbee: Thank you, it’s great to be here. 

Wyatt: Why don’t you…why don’t we start out with you telling us just a little bit about…our listeners would be interested in where you came from before your job here at Southern Utah University. 

Lisonbee: Well, it’s quite a journey. And it started at Southern Utah University almost 20 years ago as a student. I completed my Master’s in Business Administration here, this is home, and began a career that led to 16 years working on the executive side in the Utah State Government. And the last six years I was the Division Director for the Workforce Development Division, a statewide organization that has oversight of preparing Utah’s workforce for all of the growth opportunities Utah has done so well at meeting the demand for. And I had an opportunity to join your team here, I came with a big smile, Southern Utah University is well known for its innovation and ability to connect with industry so I'm excited to be on the team. 

Wyatt: And right now, your assignment is kind of jobs in a way. 

Lisonbee: Kind of jobs, yeah. 

Wyatt: Jobs, entrepreneurship, rural development, finding places for students to help in the community. It’s a pretty broad job, actually. I don’t know what your job description actually reads but…

Lisonbee: Yeah, it’s…

Meredith: Whatever it is, we’re exceeding it. [All laugh]

Lisonbee: Yeah, whatever President Wyatt would like to see. No, it…there are a few departments that I work with and guide that are community-based partnerships that have a strong connection to academics that provide students opportunities to prepare for their careers. And then there’s a lot of partnership within our local community and our region to ensure our students and our institution is at the table for those growth opportunities that our economy is working through. 

Wyatt: You know, I was a college president prior to the Great Recession in 2008, so I have a memory of being in this industry prior to then, this industry…

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Sounds kind of funny. 

Meredith: It does. 

Wyatt: The industry of education. I have a memory of it prior and then a memory of the shift that occurred after 2008 and it was really dramatic in my mind, at least in terms of what legislators were expecting and sometimes…I was getting off of an airplane the other day and somebody complained to me about the Utah Legislature and I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” We are receiving 50% of our funding from the Utah Legislature. There no state that I’m aware of that even come close to that. Most states, the presidents of schools that I’m aware of, the legislature is giving them 15% of their total funding or 20% of their total funding. We’re getting about 50%, that is a massive support. And that support comes to us for the real career-focused kinds of…the things that we think are career-focused like engineering and the medical careers and business and education, but it also comes to us for all of the humanities and arts and everything else. But in that support, we have seen a significant shift and it hasn’t really abated. That they want to see us help prepare students more directly for jobs. And that’s part of what you’re helping us with, to understand all of this. 

Lisonbee: Well, it’s a winning model. I think the state leadership has recognized an investment in their future is what has brought us to be number one on so many lists within the nation and now, being recognized even internationally, as a place that knows how to drive economic development, job growth, unemployment…all of those numbers. Low unemployment, high job growth, all of those numbers that happen is because of an investment in education with a strong partnership with industry. 

Wyatt: A lot of people don’t realize that Southern Utah University is more STEM than what they think. I just went through last year’s graduation numbers and 43% of SUU graduates graduated in a STEM related field. That’s…I think that’s surprising to most people when I say that. And it feels to me like it’s continuing to evolve that way. This report that you talked about, Steve…Steve and Stephen. I’m so happy my name isn’t Steve.

Lisonbee: Why?

Wyatt: [Laughs] Because everyone calls me Scott. [All laugh] It’s fun to be here with a Steve and a Stephen and a Scott. Well, this report in The Chronicle that just came out talked about a change in student majors and what they’re graduating in and it’s pretty clear that the world has changed and we have some frustrations, understandable frustrations, because my undergraduate degree was philosophy, that’s as humanities as you get, you can’t really get much more than that. But the State Legislature is trying to fund more dollars and trying to get us to be more accountable for those kinds of degrees that have a direct link to careers. Engineering, math, science, all of those kinds of things. But here’s the national data and it shows that the increase in completion of degrees from 2010 to 2017, 119% growth in science technologies and technicians. That is massive growth. 42% in liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities. It’s not just that the Legislature is asking us to do more in STEM. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Science, technology, engineering and math related fields. It’s that students are demanding those in increasingly high numbers. That’s where the demand is. Precision production, computer information sciences and support, up 63%. It was interesting to see though that parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies are up 63%. I’m not sure what’s the motivator for that and such an increase. But we live in a place where tourism is huge and that’s a growing field at our university. 

Meredith: Yep. 

Lisonbee: There’s definitely an increase in attention on how you manage in a cooperative approach your lands and your facilities and your parks and it takes…

Meredith: And an increased attention to the environment generally. 

Lisonbee: Yeah. 

Meredith: This particular generation is more interested than ever and…

Wyatt: Yeah, I think so. I’d love to go back and do three or four majors one at a time. Live my life over several times. Outdoor rec would be one of them. I’m sure biology and engineering would be one…or two. 

Meredith: I’d be interested in that but I don’t think that they’d let me in. [All laugh]

Wyatt: The category that is listed here as the least growing is public administration and social service professions, but we see considerable growth in our Master of Public Administration. 

Lisonbee: Well, a 30% growth is still great growth. 

Meredith: It’s still a pretty good growth. 

Lisonbee: Yeah, it’s still growth. But it doesn’t compare to 119% for the science, technology and technicians. 

Wyatt: Yeah, right. Well, what should we be doing? That’s a…I think that’s one of those questions. What should we be doing as a university to help in this debate? The industry complains that we’re not preparing students well enough, on our own campuses, we complain that industry isn’t doing their part to support and to retrain people, policy leaders are trying to get the ROI up. It seems to be a period of time when there’s a lot of discussion about this. And when I bring it up, I just get, “Don’t forget us.” 

Meredith: Right. And as a guy from the fine arts, I understand that reaction from my colleagues and I’d like to circle back to that in just a second, but to answer your original question about what should we be doing, Stephen and I were prepping this a little bit yesterday, just having a little conversation about it, and this is a thing that’s come up in previous conversations with other guests, but I’m interested in Stephen’s opinion about this. We’ve talked about how our transcripts are generated and I think like everybody else in the United States, we use the Banner Student Information System. And how would it be if we could somehow do a soft skills transcript for students that showed…maybe even expanded beyond soft skills, looking at a transcript that showed not only the communication, teamwork, problem solving things that came out of the coursework that they students were involved in, but then, as Stephen suggested yesterday in our conversation, could we also add to that any internships that they have done so that along with their resume, that we would maybe help them put together as they go out for their first job interviews, that the university was actually doing a better job of reporting the soft skills that students had been engaged with. Because we actually don’t do a very good job of that. The student transcript is a fairly dry document that just outlines, as it should, the courses taken and the credits and the degree granted. But, if there are additional things that students are learning, and we know that there are, perhaps we should try to track them and help students report those to a prospective employer. I’ve always thought that was quite an interesting idea, a parallel transcript. 

Lisonbee: Absolutely. And a couple of thoughts—one is go back and look. In preparation to answer where you’re headed, Steve, there’s growth in so many different areas of completion and you wonder why industry is increasing the value of a degree when there is flooding of market, so to speak, with competitors that can provide technical training for specific occupations. 

Meredith: Right. 

Lisonbee: Well, there is great value in a degree and the degree is a signal to industry and a proxy to so many wonderful things. And as you started to explain…do we market what those things are to help the students have a competitive advantage? I think industry has already begun to recognize what the degree signals and several of those key things…as we move into a gig and project-based economy, there are some soft skills that higher education does develop very well. Teamwork, time management, multi-tasking ability, to learn how to be an adult. [Laughs]

Meredith: Yeah. 

Lisonbee: To live and operate in a new place with housing and finances and all of those things. Because the new economy is such that you’ll see individuals live in multiple, different locations with multiple different teams and companies over the course of their career. So, are they ready for those multiple transitions they’ll have? And so, a higher education does a great job at that. And then to also reinforce the growth in demand for a degree, Burning Glass did a survey of the IT industry and found out that IT help desk positions with current employees in that field, 39% of the current job holders, 39% had a bachelor’s degree. However, 60% of the new job postings for that position require a degree. So, that is validating that industry recognizes that a higher education degree provides those soft skills, as you mentioned, to an individual so that they can have a long career going in and out of projects, going in and out of potential different geographical locations, etc. But how do you market that? I think is what you’re asking. It would be interesting to innovate ways to help students identify a way to display that as a competitive advantage. 

Meredith: Yeah. You had mentioned that we see examples of industry beginning to run their own sort of miniature versions of higher ed. You can get a certificate from Google or someone that will say, “We don’t have enough qualified applicants for our entry level positions in something, so we’re going to take that bull by the horns and we’ll do it ourselves internally.” But for higher level positions, the college degree is still the requirement. It’s still the gold standard, you can’t get the middle level position. You can get the initial position with just training from the actual company itself, but the expectation is that whatever it is that you go through to get a college degree, that is still the requirement for that middle and upper level position in almost every industry. Which I think speaks well of our industry that people that are hiring still value or perhaps value more, even, the skills that we are giving students. But they’re not just the skills on that dry transcript, they’re the analytical skills, they’re the “getting along with people”  skills, being a member of a group, of a team, and all of the things that we talk about as these soft skills that really are developed in virtually every class here on campus. 

Lisonbee: A data set that would be really interesting to see and will happen in five to ten years as we settle into how we’re adjusting a little bit to our educational approach will be just what you’re talking about. The individuals that would prefer a very fast-tracked, technical, skills-based education, a very focused certificate and they enter into an industry with a first occupation at tier one, what does their career track look like? And what competitive opportunities have they lost because of the wide range of skills developed that a liberal arts and a higher education experience, a more enriching, full experience could provide them? Will we find that the technically trained individuals miss the growth career opportunities because they lack the skills to manage projects, work with teams, whiteboard visionary opportunities because they’re so focused on a technical education? 

Wyatt: Yeah, there seems to be a combination here, isn’t there? That for some jobs, you can’t get it without certain skills. For example, accounting, you just simply have to have the credentials. But how can we add value to those credentials that help a person move up? I talked to an accountant who said he felt bad that there were all of these requirements now to become an accountant because he took an interdisciplinary degree track when he was in college and learned about all of these interesting things in history and arts and he felt like that’s what made him successful as an accountant because he was able to really connect with people and understand all of these ideas to talk about and to bring people in and it just made him a very marketable person and could connect with everybody else. It’s not really possible to do that today. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: And with the growth of all of the skills that people have to know in so many different disciplines like engineering, it’s kind of eating away at the freedom to take the broad, general education classes. They’re increasingly more difficult. But we’ve got two issues and the one is preparing people with the specific skills they need to be successful in the job, and that’s an area where we sometimes get some criticism because they’re not really prepared with all of the skills sometimes. And then the other part of it is, “But give us all of the soft skills” that are not optional anymore. Quite a challenge. 

Meredith: It is. I…there are a number of ways that people describe that second idea. One of the ways that I like is that, “If you had to be stuck in a five hour layover in an airport, who would you rather be sitting next to having a conversation? Is it the person with the extreme depth of one particular technical area or is it the person that has several areas of interest and a wide range of…is well-read and interesting to talk to?” And some of that is what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about having a fairly narrow, job related set of skills versus being an interesting dinner companion, sort of. And I think both…that’s a little bit the rock and hard place that we’re stuck between because employers expect us to do both things in many ways and it’s hard in four years to get all of that stuff. Some of it hearkens back to the importance of general education which is where we hopefully learn things outside of our particular sphere of interest. But yeah, I think this might be the great challenge, or certainly, it’s one of the great challenges along with affordability and accessibility that we kind of face in higher education. 

Lisonbee: Well, there are several examples even right here at Southern Utah University that have identified a path that takes them from general education through completion of a major, begins early in maybe the 2000 coursework to engage them in activities that build their companion resume to their academic transcript and begin to expose them to industry in ways that they get to test whether that path is a good fit for them and begin to help them open up new networks so that, as they progress into the 3000 now 4000, they have more opportunities then to expand their interaction with industry. I think one example that I spent quite a bit of time just the other day working with is our Intergovernmental Internship Cooperative, our IIC program that works hand in hand with an academic track and provides an internship opportunity for students that want to work in an outdoor rec and parks occupation. And they begin to then work during the summer like a lot of students might choose to do, but it’s working in an area that’s gaining them exposure to what they’re learning in the class. And a lot of those internships will span into the fall when they return and they’re in school and they’re still working as well as the parks stay open through the seasons, but what it does is it introduces them to two or three different summer internships so by the time they graduate, they’ve got multiple, professional networks with a very correlative hands on experience with what they’re learning in the classroom. And then their placement, it’s not whether or not they’re placed, it’s where. And they have enough exposure to different partners that they can understand the difference about where they want to enter into their next step. And just one other quick thought is there…when I was raised in Delta, Utah, I began working at a young age and by the time I graduated high school had four or five jobs. And those jobs taught me several skills that put me in a position where I understood how to work in the workforce. And currently, because of the recession we went through, a lot of our youth that are now coming into education missed those opportunities because they were filled by other adults and others. So, they’re needing to learn some of those skills and they might be starting their engagement to industry a little later, but we’re now kind of adjusting that. So, it’s interesting to see how important these jobs are for our students. Probably more so now than they once were. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it’s interesting that you’d say that because I remember before I started college, I had worked in a factory, I had been a paperboy, I had worked at a grocery store, I had worked as a camp counselor for a summer in a private camp. A lot of opportunities…

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: To learn about work from non-parents.

Meredith: I did custodial work, I worked at a mausoleum on the weekends sealing people into crypts, or their remains anyway. That was by far the creepiest job I ever had…still wakes me up every once in a while. But yeah, you’re right. That’s a…that summer internship, that summer job, that’s part of what you do here, Stephen, is you find us ways to partner with industry which actually is a challenge for us because we’re remotely, rurally located in Utah. And let’s talk a little bit about that. What are…not just the challenges that we face, but what are some of our successes? You mentioned our partnership with the National Parks, what are some of our other…obviously we prepare students in education because we send them out for student teacher…their semester where they are out with a master teacher working in the classroom. What are some of the other things that we do? Some of the other ways we partner with industry? 

Lisonbee: Yeah, I think you’re bringing up very key points. For Southern Utah University to be such a large, regional institution in such a small, rural community. There’s a lot of great environmental benefits for the students and the community, but there are some disadvantages. You don’t have a large economy to pull from where you can go to an industry association and say, “You represent 800 employers in this specific industry. We’re a mile away from your headquarters, let’s broker relationships.” We have to be a little more innovative in how we create those opportunities. And Southern Utah University does a great job with that. You think about the accounting program as mentioned earlier. The top four or five firms of accounting all have a very strong relationship with the university so that as students complete their degree here, it’s just a matter of which one and where you’re going to work. And so, there’s examples like that. There’s a new one that’s being built out right now in partnership with Utah’s Talent Ready Utah Office. Our aviation program is building out pathways to be able to then ensure that those students in our aviation program that’s growing, bursting at the seams, have an opportunity to be able to experience and put their talent to work at an earlier stage. And so, there are several of those and there are some that provide a more intense three to four month experience and then there’s some pathways that we’re working on that are just more of an equal partner along the entire way. So, I think of the Rural Health Scholars. The Rural Health Scholars program in partnership with our health programs helps a student even as a freshman begin to have some exposure and experience through value-added coursework, community exposure, to begin to compare to compete for medical school. And our medical school acceptance rate is phenomenal and no other institution of higher education in Utah can compete. 

Wyatt: Probably no other school in the United States. 

Lisonbee: Correct. 

Wyatt: Because the admission rate is higher than 95% every year. 

Lisonbee: And it happens because of an engagement with the students as freshmen. So, there’s different models based on the exit strategy after graduation. And another area that we’re beginning to look at is how do you partner with new employers that want to come to the community? And how would an institution of higher learning begin to be at the table with a company that’s looking at coming here to talk about students and student employment being a part of that brokered negotiation so they clearly know coming in that you’ve got this large workforce with slight adjustments and cooperative could be a very powerful, sustainable model for a company that wants to relocate? That’s not something that’s been done in communities that we’re starting to look at here. 

Wyatt: We’ve talked about several things, and one is what is our responsibility at a university to prepare students both in the soft skills and the technical skills. And we’ve talked about how we’re partnering with industry to help make sure that the connections are there when they graduate to get a job and that we’re doing the right kind of training to prepare them for those jobs. There are other kinds of things, too, and one of them is what we commonly refer to as the skills gap. That the…that a number of students that graduate in all the different fields…in some there’s an oversupply of workers, in some there’s an undersupply. Despite the fact that as we mentioned earlier that we graduate students, or that students across the country are graduating increasingly more in some of these career-based fields, there’s still an interesting gap. And Stephen, I’d be curious to know what your sense of this is. For example, this is from Burning Glass Technologies, a report that was covered in this Chronicle article, that in the country, we have a 44% gap in the healthcare practices. 44 percent. The demand for workers exceeds supply by 44%. In business and finance, it exceeds it by 21% and in such areas as arts, entertainment, sports and media, the supply exceeds by 17%. So, we’ve got too many people graduating in some areas and not enough in other areas. Is this a problem? You spent years and years and years for the State in Workforce Services trying to match all these things up and…why do we have this skills gap? Is it because employers aren’t paying enough in certain areas? Is it because students aren’t interested in those areas? Is it because students don’t know where they’re at? Is it because we tell students to pursue their passion and they don’t think about anything other than their passion? What leads to this disconnect between jobs available and students' preparation for those jobs? 

Lisonbee: Well, President, I think you touched on the exact key items. If we were to walk into a class here, a general education class, and said, “Hey, 42% of you need to come with us. We’re going to go over to the local hospital and you’re going to start working with them” there won’t be 42% of the class that wants to do that. It’s just most likely not what they all want to do and some of them haven’t yet determined whether or not they’re interested in that. So, there’s a level of exposure to these opportunities that we could increase with marketing. So, as I think about some of my experience as you mentioned, previous years, we know where the industry demand is and we know the high wage, high demand occupations that if Utah invests in, we will have a more stable economy. And so, we know those and there’s been great effort to invest into those. That being said, what makes the United States of America so brilliant and powerful to live in is choice. And an ability to allow some people to have passion into what they move into. Sometimes they just realize that four years into that passion career, they can’t pay the bills and then they’ll come back and there’s some adjustment. But the other part you mentioned is wages. We have not seen an adjustment in wages that maybe some thought we could see. And there are experiences in Utah, and Utah has experienced them in not too far past, where there’s been a lot of effort put into building up a specific occupation. Well, unfortunately, when a government occupation manages a market demand, you penalize the enterers into that market because you’re keeping the wages down because you flooded the market with the talent. So, there’s a balance to play through it but, yeah. We’re entering into a time where healthcare is of greater need, it’s of greater interest to us as citizens. We also have a change in the demographics and the age of our residents and then technology is now found in every industry and every occupation. And so, those will be growing for the foreseeable future and so, our alignment to support them is a wise idea, which we’ve been doing. Southern Utah University has done a great job and now competing and growing in some targeted technology fields and targeted health fields. 

Wyatt: Yeah. One of the challenges in getting the skills gap fixed it seems to me is that some of these areas that are high demand—architecture and engineering, computer and mathematics, business and finance, healthcare—some of those areas have such a directed study schedule. This isn’t the best expiable, but I think it illustrates it. One of my daughters was majoring in Spanish and communications and after a year or two, took a class in science and it just lit her right up. And she wanted to change her major to that, but she realized that she could graduate in her first chosen area in another year and a half but if she changed to the science, she’d have to start over and it’d be four full years and she just wasn’t willing to give up four more years. And we have such a large percentage of our students that come to college exploring what it is they want to do rather than already have their mind made up, and it’s always seemed to me that that’s one of the problems in addition to the ones that we’ve kind of listed that you have to know that you want to be an engineer when you’re a freshman. Or at least…

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: At the start of your sophomore year. And if you haven’t decided by then, then you’re going to be too discouraged to go for it. 

Meredith: Yeah. Being a music major is very much that same way. You need to start when you’re a freshman. 

Wyatt: But you can change your major when you’re a junior to a lot of the areas in the humanities because they’re less prescriptive and they have less classes that come in a series.

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: You have to take this one and this one and this one and it just sends you out for so much time. 

Lisonbee: Well, I experienced a change between my sophomore and junior year here at Southern Utah University. I was headed towards medical school and it took a very wise and keen counselor, advisor, who knew me through student activities pulled me aside and said, “Are you sure about this?” And there was a new Master’s of Business Administration about to come on the line and she just redirected me. And I’ll be forever grateful for that because I think that it was a wiser choice for me. So, good advisors, and I think one of the things that I really think is great for Southern Utah University is what the student services is doing with their advisors. They’re getting to know the students in a way that they can provide that meaningful feedback and adjustments. To not just plotting their next semester’s coursework but helping them map out where they’re really going. So, I think that’s a great piece that’s happening here and can continue to help reduce the amount of changes that we see as a junior. 

Wyatt: Well, and as our software that students use to track their progress towards completions has a lot of data in it that talks about job openings and salaries and those kinds of things. 

Meredith: Yeah. You know, there’s actually…we call it “big data,” there’s actually quite a lot of predictive analytics that we could use to help students and say, “We know that your passion is here but it’s more likely that you’ll be successful here.” Because often that doesn’t line up and it takes a student, as you suggest, a couple of years or maybe an entire degree before they say, “You know what? I actually probably should have studied this instead” like the experience that your daughter had. And that’s probably another podcast to discuss how we can help students make that decision earlier and make a more informed decision. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it would be. And another one that isn’t probably worthy of a whole podcast, but it’s the conversation about passion. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Because I see so many students that are trying to figure out what their passion is and it takes them too long to figure that out or they feel like they need to love what they’re doing, when so many people learn to love things and find what you do well and become passionate about it. That would be another fun topic, actually. 

Meredith: It would be. 

Wyatt: Because I’ve never met a person that’s passionate about cleaning windows, but there’s a lot of demand for window cleaners. 

Meredith: Right. 

Lisonbee: And when they find out that they can make $75 an hour, boy, that can change a passion real quick because you work four hours in the morning and you’ve got the afternoon to go hike. So, passion can be created with the right environment. One of the things that, to add to this discussion point is stackable credentials. And stacking in a way that when you do this base piece, you still have four options to go from. You go up, you maybe…so you can stack credentials in a way that students can see, “OK, I’ve got four paths that lead off of this.”

Wyatt: So, talk more about that. Help our listeners. Understand what a stackable credential is. 

Lisonbee: Oh, absolutely. So, a stackable credential at the basic example is associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, right? They build off each other. But you can take it down even to a lower level within a college and say, “OK, within business, I’m going to learn the fundamental pieces of business and get a certificate or some type of credential. Maybe not even an associate’s but just a lower level that says…” 

Meredith: Like a badge. 

Lisonbee: Like a badge. 

Meredith: We have badges. 

Wyatt: Or a certificate. 

Lisonbee: A certificate. 

Meredith: Or a certificate. 

Lisonbee: That you understand the basic model of business functionality. And from that point now, do you want to then talk about human resources or do you want to talk about project management? And then you can build a badge or a certificate about that. “OK, now you understand project management, foundations of a business. Would you like then learn about IT? Or about communication or others?” And you’re actually in and out of multiple disciplines as you build that. And some refer to it as gameology. The idea that you can build a profile which is yourself, you can go around and gather badges and different competencies and you build your resume in a different approach rather than just seeking a more long-term, tenured bachelor’s and you’re building competencies. Which can be fun for some people. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it can also look like a certificate in welding and then moving on to an associate degree in engineering technologies and then moving on to be a mechanical engineer. 

Lisonbee: Yes. 

Wyatt: Or it can be a certificate in culinary arts and then moving up to a bachelor’s degree in hotel management or restaurant management. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: That you get a certificate and then you can go get a job and then continue doing your degree. Or just…anyway, just stacking things together. 

Lisonbee: And sometimes you can see individuals preparing for medical school that spend that year doing an Executive MBA program so when they’re done, they can run their practice. You can cross dramatically over from discipline to discipline. 

Wyatt: Well, where do we go from here? What do we do? How do we…what’s our next step? Stephen, what would you challenge the university to do a better job of? 

Lisonbee: What to do a better job of is a tough question to be asked, but where to stay focused would be a good way for me to think about it. The colleges and departments have advisor reports full of amazing industry leaders that are supportive, that have passion and are ready to serve and I would challenge us to continue to work with them and to get them tactically involved in the direction of what’s happening and a little less of advisory but more of tactically involved. We have one example, there’s several, but one example maybe we could spotlight is the Entrepreneurial Leadership Council. So, this is an advisory board for one of the emphasis, department focuses in the School of Business with entrepreneurialism and the advisory board has a little steep entry to participate, there’s skin in the game, they’re very tactical of what their role is, playing a mentor to students, participating in activities that reinforce and support the academic experience. So, I would say continue to build on those experiences, and the more industry can rub shoulders with the students, the more the students will be better prepared to compete and will have those relationships and networks established. So, I think that would be one and I think another one would be helping to begin looking at our change in our economy which is moving to a gig, flex, remote work environment. Helping our students feel confident to work in that environment and to recognize how to manage change as they move from one company or one project to the next. And it’s an amazing opportunity because a lot of the students who come to Southern Utah University come because they love where we’re at and the experiences of being out here, outside of the classroom equally to in the classroom. So, preparing them to be able to then compete for jobs where they can continue to live that way I think would be the second. 

Wyatt: We teach by example as much as anything else, and a university that’s willing to change and adapt is modeling the kind of behavior that our students are going to be expected to have throughout their careers. It’s interesting how many job changes people have over their life and some of these preparing for that. It feels to me like, in addition to what you’re saying, that we probably need to do a better job recognizing that students come in huge percentages unaware of what they want to do. That we think that it’s somebody else’s responsibility to help them figure that out, but we probably can do a better job of introducing them to all of the possibilities to help them move along in making a decision more quickly. 

Wyatt: One of the initiatives that we’re hoping to start up is to have every single freshman take a significant career analysis. So, this would be a counseling session and testing as a freshman to help them understand what the possibilities are. Hopefully we can test that out more. We actually did this a couple of years ago and found that retention was higher among students that did a significant—this is a couple hours with a career counselor—in testing and then conversation. So, that seems like one is that we need to be more responsible to help them figure it out. And two, we need to be more responsive to industry’s demands, as you’ve mentioned already Stephen, and watch what’s happening with the economy. 

Meredith: And create new programs maybe. 

Wyatt: And create new programs. 

Meredith: That match.

Wyatt: We have students who come and then leave because we don’t have the degree that they’ve chosen. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: They didn’t know what they wanted to major in when they started, then they figured it out and then we don’t have that degree for them. So, there’s a lot of career-focused degrees that we hear students really want. Looking at the national data, we know where students are headed and we’re receiving some pressure from policy leaders in Utah to move that directions too. So, it’s not just that they’re asking to do it, it’s that students are asking us to do it as well. 

Meredith: That’s right.

Wyatt: Being more responsive, being more helpful to them, building more relationships and connections. And sometimes these are so hard. I became a lawyer…every internship I had almost persuaded me against it. [All laugh] Because being the grunt in the office didn’t motivate me to do it, but my first professional job, I loved. I think that it is a lot harder for many people than we think to make that decision as to what path to go down. 

Lisonbee: Well, the ideas that you mention are wonderful investments to the student and those who are supporting them. And this would be, if executed well, an amazing recruitment and placement tool that would be a way to help the student be efficient with their time and Southern Utah University has aligned the opportunity for a three-year degree. So, if you provide a more focused, faster experience, it means you’ve got to frontload that with more purposeful intent so that track becomes meaningful. 

Wyatt: Yeah. And the three year degree requires the same amount of time and effort. It’s just that they use summers.

Meredith: They compress it, that’s right. 

Wyatt: They just come in the summers. Eight semesters, including two summers, you finish a year quicker. 

Meredith: That’s right.

Wyatt: Well, this is going to be a continuing discussion as we try to figure out where they economy is going and what our students want and what we want.

Meredith: Yeah, and really remaking ourselves just a little bit at the university. A different focus maybe than past iterations. 

Wyatt: And I was talking with one of our super delightful faculty members a while ago who said, “I don’t want to work at a technical school. That’s why I’m at this university and I teach poetry and I want students to learn to love poetry for the sake of poetry. Not because reading and understanding poetry will help them be better in their job. I just want them to love poetry.” And I think that the response is, “They’re coming to get a job. You turn them on to poetry while they’re here.” 

Meredith: And, by the way, reading and understanding poetry in itself as an end is a great end. 

Wyatt: It is a great end in itself. 

Meredith: But it also does, in fact, help expand your ability and your vocabulary and your ability to understand written and spoken communication. Which is…might accidentally be, but nevertheless, is one of those things that employers are looking for. 

Wyatt: Yeah, and the arts help us appreciate others. I remember visiting an art school in China and as a result of that visit, coming away with a deeper appreciation for my Chinese friends and their culture and I know that helps me as I work with them. 

Lisonbee: The experience of being a full-time student in higher education as a young adult, if done with the right institution, can prepare somebody to be a healthy adult, to professionally work in an increasingly diversified workplace and those individuals that really immerse themselves in the full experience of the university will be very value-added employees because they can be a part of multiple different circles, multiple different conversations and they can be open to feedback and interaction with people from all walks of life. 

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had as our guest in-studio today Stephen Lisonbee who is our Regional Services Director here at SUU and we’ve been talking about how the university can better prepare students for the workplace. We’ve enjoyed our conversation with Stephen, and, as always, we thank you, our devoted listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back again soon, bye bye.