Local employers and educators collaborate to make sure students learn what they will need in the workforce.

Local employers and educators collaborate to make sure students learn what they will need in the workforce.

Projected workforce shortages and an increasing demand for results-oriented degrees are forging strong partnerships between local businesses and educational institutions.

As local companies prepare to fill the anticipated vacancies caused by retiring baby boomers, many are turning to universities and community colleges to help fill the gap with work-ready graduates. A growing number of business leaders are asking educators to develop or refine programs to better prepare graduates for their job openings. Local business and economic leaders say they hope the partnerships will help the region avoid workforce shortfalls and strengthen the overall economy.

"It's not a central Ohio challenge," says Kenny McDonald, president and chief economic officer of Columbus 2020, the region's economic development organization that works to generate business growth. "It's absolutely 100 percent a national issue. We're reflective of it. We are seeing really interesting partnerships happen-maybe more than ever."

The collaborations range from business meeting with education leaders to share details about needed skills to working with schools to create certification programs that train participants for immediate job openings and even to developing college degree programs designed to prepare future graduates for anticipated employee and executive openings.

The efforts have the potential to "accelerate the pace at which those jobs can be filled with qualified workers, which benefits not only specific businesses and industries but the entire region," says Jennifer Tisone Price, acting executive director for the Ohio Economic Development Association in Columbus.

"These partnerships ensure that individual businesses have a pool of qualified workers ready to hit the ground running as they grow and expand," she says."They can also benefit the regional economy.Having a prepared workforce makes central Ohio more attractive to companies who are looking to locate in communities that meet their employee needs."

Part of Wendy McWherter's job as a corporate representative for Indiana Wesleyan University is meeting with central Ohio business leaders to discuss their training and employment needs. "We really want to hear what the marketplace is saying," she says. She hosts regular meetings with business leaders to ask them what degrees and certificate programs the university should offer, what training needs they have and what skills are important to their hiring managers.

IWU uses the information to create and change degree programs and to develop individualized training for companies that want to enhance their employees' skills. The university also works with companies to offer tuition discounts and onsite degree programs.

In response to employer feedback, IWU has added components to several of its degrees, including an information systems specialization in business and a healthcare management focus in the MBA program. At the recommendation of various chambers of commerce, the university is developing an entrepreneurship program that it will pilot at one of its Indiana locations, she says.

"The marketplace is always changing," she says. "Our goal as a nonprofit, private institution is to be flexible enough to meet the needs of market and, equally, prepare our students to be successful."

When businesses take an active role in shaping curriculum, it's a win for them and for students, says Eddie Pauline, who until recently served as the director of Ohio State University's Buckeye Leadership Fellows Program. The intensive leadership program brings students in multiple disciplines together for problem-based learning opportunities.

The program, which assigns students to work with local executives to solve actual business problems, has had inspiring results, he says. Eleven of its 55 graduates are employed at Fortune 500 companies. Ohio State launched the program five years ago in response to business feedback that students needed more help developing skills like team work and critical thinking, says Pauline, who now serves as the director of business development in the office of economic and corporate engagement for OSU. The program demonstrates how meaningful input from business can enhance student success. "There has to be investment from business," he says. "It only works when business is accessible."

Franklin University also works closely with business leaders to ensure that its programs are relevant and innovative, says Sherry Mercurio, the school's director of communications and public relations. The university works hard to provide "coursework and curriculum that mirrors what business is saying it needs," she says.

Franklin enlists business and industry leaders to serve on discipline-specific advisory boards that provide guidance on putting theories into practice, offer insights on global business and follow emerging trends, she says.

In response to growth in Ohio's energy industry, Franklin developed an energy management degree within its business school. The degree, which prepares students for a wide array of energy industry careers, is an example of the school working quickly and competently to address a workforce issue, Mercurio says. "We recognized a need in an emerging industry and created a program that would allow our students to gain the skills needed to enter this developing field and grow along with it," she says.

Similarly, the Ohio insurance industry has worked with colleges and universities to create programs to address an anticipated shortfall of 26,000 workers by 2020. Over the last few years the industry has worked with numerous Ohio schools to create two-year, four-year and certificate programs designed to fill the gap, says Rocky Parker, vice president of talent acquisition for Nationwide in Columbus. Prior to the conversations, none of the schools were focused on insurance-oriented degrees, he says. Now there are nine bachelor's degrees and three certification programs available.

Seeing four-year institutions respond with degree programs in response to industry need is exciting, he says. "We're seeing it more so than in the past," he says. "It's ROI. The parents are asking for it. Community colleges have had that view for a long time."

Pearl Interactive Network, a workforce-development focused social enterprise, has teamed up with Ohio Dominican University to start an Insurance Apprentice Program. It combines a certificate program, on-the-job training and mentoring to provide insurance companies with competent workers to fill immediate openings while providing participants with a foundation of skills that they can turn into a longer-term career, says Merry Korn, Pearl president and CEO.

Participants who earn their certification can put their skills to work at an insurance company and continue working toward a four-year degree, Korn says. The program puts them "on the first rung of the career ladder with no limit to how far they can go," she says.

ODU worked closely with the insurance industry to determine what courses to include in the certificate program to ensure that recipients could make immediate contributions to their employers, says Carol Blaine, faculty and program director for the insurance and risk management program.

The program is just one example of how ODU works with business to ensure students graduate ready to work, she says. Many of the degree programs have advisory boards made up of industry professionals who help determine what skills and courses are most useful to students and their future employers, she says. "It's a constant cycle of making sure you don't lose touch with what's happening in the industry," she says. "We want to know that we are preparing individuals with what they can expect to encounter in the workforce."

Working to ensure that students are employable when they graduate is a growing concern among colleges-particularly liberal arts colleges-as more and more applicants inquire about the return on their investment, Blaine says.

"We have really focused on how can we meet the needs of central Ohio while ensuring that our students get the value of a liberal arts education but still come out and be ready to contribute to their employer," she says.

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.