With Commissioner Zora Mulligan
In this episode we take a look at three areas people often have misperceptions about – the value of liberal arts degrees, the role of apprenticeships and trades programs in workforce development, and the opportunities available through the career and technical education path.
Nationwide, there has been an increased focus placed on technical education, which provides the kind of ‘hard’ and practical skills students need in order to roll up their sleeves and get started on day one. These programs—think welding, construction, advanced manufacturing, the list goes on—are increasingly held up as the future of a postsecondary education more readily linked to workforce needs.
While we agree there is a real need for technical skills to get students in the door, it’s often the soft skills or perhaps a better term, the power skills —critical thinking, problem solving, communication—that undergird a successful lifelong career.
A liberal arts degree makes cents
The key criticism about liberal arts degrees is that students with these degrees have low earning potential, but this was disputed in our conversation with Dr. Sue Thomas, President of Truman State University.
The research suggests that conventional wisdom is short-sighted. While liberal arts degree holders initially earn less than other graduates, “that is only for the first few years after graduation … that advantage absolutely changes over the course of the career,” said Dr. Thomas. In fact, students who have a liberal education experience are “up to 72 percent more likely than others to be earning more than $100,000 in their careers.”
What explains this? Laura Evans from Cerner, based in Kansas City: “I really think you do need both [general and technical skills]. There is a short-term need for students and workers to be able to have skills that they can come in and … add value in a work setting.” On the other hand, Evans continued, “there is certainly a longer-term thought: a need for foundational capabilities … that you draw upon again and again to learn the next set of skills, as skills change fairly rapidly.”
Another explanation is that students with liberal arts degrees are more likely to become leaders. This is because these individuals have the communicative, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills to move beyond the early stages of their careers to learn new things, expand their networks, and occupy increasingly complex roles and responsibilities outside of their area of expertise. Many of the state’s top leaders received a liberal arts education.
Power skills are an antidote for automation
Automation has become a growing part of the national conversation in recent years, but it often occurs in isolation from the parallel conversations about increased focus on technical education. To truly prepare our students for a 21st century workforce, we need to give them the power skills that will enable them to succeed not just in the years immediately following their graduation, but that they’ll need in decades to come.
“I would argue that the liberal arts and sciences become more relevant as automation increases,” said Thomas. “The skills that you’re going to need in a more automated world are social-emotional skills, creativity, high-level cognitive capabilities … The skills that cannot be easily automated are the skills you develop in a liberal arts and sciences education.”
This conclusion is supported by research that suggests that liberal arts degree holders enjoy greater career mobility than other graduates, an essential quality in a time of rapidly changing workforce needs. Zora Mulligan, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education, quipped, “These liberal arts skills are the ones you’re going to need whether you want to run a small business, run for office, or run from the robots that took your job.”
Liberal arts and technical skills go hand-in-hand
To explore more connections, we sat down with John Gaal, the Director of Training and Workforce Development for the St. Louis – Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, who has been involved with apprenticeship programs for nearly four decades, to talk about apprenticeships and their crucial role in improving student outcomes.
First things first: What is an apprenticeship?
For many, the word is a familiar one that is hard to define with any degree of specificity. Simply put, a registered apprenticeship employs an “earn while you learn” model with substantial on-the-job learning, resulting in a nationally-recognized occupational credential for the apprentice. In Missouri, there are 400 registered apprenticeship programs across a wide variety of occupations.
In our conversation, Gaal talked about how apprenticeships have changed and where they need to go if we’re serious about workforce development.
Throughout the conversation, Gaal frequently mentioned a turning point in 2011, when Harvard released a Pathways to Prosperity report that paved the way for other institutions to get serious about apprenticeships. Previously, apprenticeships have been stigmatized by perception of the three D’s—that they’re dirty, dark and dangerous.
When talking about the skills people need and develop in an apprenticeship program, Gaal highlighted so-called power skills as key to these professions. This might come as a surprise from someone deeply involved in the construction industry, and highlights the importance of challenging conventional wisdom.
“The apprenticeship program structure of today is certainly being challenged by how fast technology is moving, and in order to remain competitive [workers] have to keep up with the technology,” Gaal said. “It’s not unusual to see apprenticeships … actually implement as part of their training system these notions of what makes an employee successful throughout their curriculum,” such as problem-solving and teamwork.
What’s the difference between apprenticeships and internships?
Apprenticeships are formal employment programs designed to train people to perform a specific job, while internships are opportunities to gain on-the-job experience in a shorter time frame. Many students use internships to decide if a particular career path is right for them.
According to an annual survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), over nine in 10 employers say they consider prior experience when making hiring decisions, and many of these highly value experience in the form of internships. So it’s no surprise that internships have become an integral part of the college experience.
To dive deeper into the value of internships, we spoke with Ryan Klatt and Nick Rackers, instructors in the State Technical College of Missouri’s Commercial Turf and Grounds Management program; Reese Kerlin, a State Tech alum and assistant groundskeeper with the New York Red Bulls; and Zacary Baladenski, a current student at State Tech and an intern for the Boston Red Sox.
Why do internships matter?
“Internships are important because students learn a lot better if they do things hands-on,” Klatt said. “We do a lot of hands-on in class, but we can only do so much.”
Internships also provide students with networking opportunities and valuable connections.
“[Internships are] helpful in figuring out what you don’t want to do,” Rackers added. He noted that many students go into an internship experience thinking they want to do one thing, and realizing that maybe that path isn’t for them. That may be a difficult experience, but it saves someone from having that realization when the stakes are higher. Rob Dixon, director of the department of economic development, summed it up best: Internships are a way to “try before you buy” for both students and employers.
How do I get my foot in the door?
Both Kerlin and Baladenski secured internships with major organizations far from their campus in Linn, Missouri, made possible by a combination of self-motivation and support from State Tech faculty. Like with many things in college, being a self-starter has its benefits.
If internships make a big difference for student outcomes, as research suggests they do, ensuring students from all backgrounds have access to these programs is essential. “Most students can’t take time away from a work week to do an unpaid job,” said Zora Mulligan, commissioner of higher education. Both Baladenski and Kerlin agreed. “There’s no chance I would have been able to travel out to Philadelphia without being compensated for my time,” Kerlin said.
Students should also remember to think about internships broadly. “It doesn’t have to have the job title of ‘internship’ to count as an internship for the credit required for a degree,” Rackers said. Students looking only for positions labeled as an internship may be limiting their opportunities without knowing it.
As an intern, will I just be getting coffee and shredding paper for my supervisors?
“I think often we don’t pay enough attention to [a student’s experience in an internship,] and so you have interns doing everything from running to get coffee, to filing, to shredding, when really the purpose of their work there is to learn more about what they want to do when they grow up,” Mulligan said.
“We don’t expect [students] to get special treatment,” Rackers said. “But we do expect some kind of acknowledgement that these students are there to learn something. So we understand that maybe a job has to get done and there’s a time crunch and that’s the real world, but at the same time, taking a student aside and explaining something just a little bit more thoroughly goes a long way.”
Being a self-starter is an essential part of being a successful college student and a successful intern. This means not waiting to be told to search for new opportunities, instead taking advantage of industry websites, mentors, and other opportunities on campus to learn new skills and build a reliable network. Kerlin and Baladenski are examples of the success and job prospects students can enjoy by doing so. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for faculty. Providing valuable learning experiences in the classroom, and career guidance and support outside of it, can ensure students at an institution like State Tech are well-equipped for success.
Additional resources & further reading:
MoTalent is a series by the Missouri Department of Higher Education focused on hearing real voices talk about economic and workforce development. This podcast is part of the Best in Midwest and Talent for Tomorrow initiatives.