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Colleges feel pressure to help produce jobs, deliver technology training

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Local colleges and universities offer an ever-expanding swath of coursework, majors and certificates in high-growth technology fields to mold employable students. The latest examples include:

Columbia College, known for its arts programs, partners with a university in Florence, Italy, to offer an undergraduate degree in arts and materials conservation that emphasizes the science behind art materials and art preservation and conservation.

Elmhurst College, a four-year liberal arts school, offers a cybersecurity bachelor’s degree through its online center. The college’s newest master’s degrees are in data science, entry nursing and applied geospatial sciences.

The Illinois Institute of Technology has introduced a master’s in data science that combines studies in computer science and applied mathematics, and is the only college in the United States to offer an intellectual property management and markets master’s degree.

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has expanded its bioengineering department and is leveraging an alumnus’ $6.5 million donation to boost a disease-treatment program run by the colleges of engineering and medicine.

Prairie State College offers two-year associate’s degrees in biosciences aimed at helping African-American students prepare for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The college aims to expand its online course offerings and is exploring classes in cloud computing and cloud security.

Northwestern University has introduced its first three massive open online courses (MOOCs) to students worldwide, and is reinventing the university’s career services department by advising students in their freshman year on career choices and leveraging technology to connect students with alumni and employers.

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Updated: December 18, 2013 6:02AM

Local colleges and universities still bursting with recession-driven enrollments are turning, albeit belatedly, to incentives to not only attract and retain students but to find them jobs in lucrative technology fields.

It’s all about accountability: Students demand greater results for their money, President Barack Obama and Congress want to rank colleges and universities based partly on their graduates’ earnings and employment stats, and Chicago’s growing technology community is proving to be a braintrust starving for higher-education resources such as research, mentorship and skill-building.

The stakes are global. Young people and higher-education institutions in Chicago and nationwide must seize the moment to create and fill good-paying jobs or fall further behind, recent reports show.

A study released in October showed U.S. adults rank near the bottom in technology skills needed for the modern workplace compared with their peers in other developed nations.

A report released Sept. 30 calls young people who can find only minimal employment “the new lost generation” because they are caught amid the recession, a scarcity of high-paying, lower-skilled jobs and greater numbers of jobs requiring advanced skills.

The employment rate for people ages 21-25 dropped from 84 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2012, with young men’s employment rate sinking from 80 percent to 65 percent during that period, according to the report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Chicago-area schools are responding by offering incentives much like the private sector: Free yearly computer courses after graduation; science lab work alongside artistic degrees; online courses to accommodate flexible schedules; and new studies in such emerging fields as cybersecurity and intellectual property management.

The programs are increasingly oriented toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and mirror K-12 curricula overhauls aimed at teaching students to solve real-world problems.

Advocates say schools must combine technology skill-building with liberal arts independent-thinking initiatives to prepare today’s students for the work force. But are they no more than new versions of the shorthand or woodworking courses of old?

Terri Winfree, president at Prairie State community college in Chicago Heights, said new college graduates must have a broader skill-set than when her dad worked as a welder repairman at the Ford Motor Co. plant on the South Side.

“My dad did the exact same thing over and over again,” said Winfree, who started as a student at Prairie State and rose up the ranks for the past 18 years before assuming the president’s post in May. “That’s gone by the wayside.”

Workers must be “utility players” who use basic math and reading skills to mine data and react to constantly changing demands, she said. One local employer told Winfree on a campus tour that students who will run computerized machines should take pottery and jewelry-making classes to develop agility and to foster an intuitive feel for a machine.

Employers use a product from the firm that runs the ACT test, called WorkKeys, to see if potential employees hold a certificate showing they’ve met certain skills in areas like mathematics, finding information and reading for understanding. People who complete the WorkKeys assessments earn ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate.

Employees can maneuver into higher-paying jobs by leveraging dual-degree programs in which two-year community colleges partner with four-year colleges to encourage students to earn higher-level training.

Take Migdalia Delgado, a single mother to two boys ages 16 and 11, who started her career in technology repairing medication delivery devices at Baxter Healthcare with an associate’s degree in electronics. She quickly realized that she loved the hands-on work and that she needed more education to go further. So she returned to DeVry to earn a bachelor’s of science in technical management.

“My interest was in knowing the details about how technology gadgets and products work, and I realized that I needed more education to fulfill this need and curiosity,” said Delgado, 39, a native of Humboldt Park who now lives in Logan Square.

Delgado also wanted to serve as a role model for her sons. “I can’t expect my kids to go to college if I don’t.”

After Delgado earned her bachelor’s degree, she was hired at products-testing firm Intertek, where she oversees testing electronics, toys and other children’s products for companies ranging from small manufacturers to big retailers.

She loves the day-to-day variety of testing something as simple as a pen one day and as complex as a “smart” computer tablet the next.

Elmhurst College offers students who started coursework this past spring toward a master’s degree in computer information systems one free computer-related class each year after they graduate.

“We have expanded our course offerings, so (the graduates) will see more new offerings such as data science or geographical information systems” that would update their knowledge, said Tim Ricordati, dean of the School for Professional Studies.

Purdue University recently announced a new MBA course in Chicago starting in 2015 that will let scientists, engineers and technologists gain business smarts in weekend classes with teacher teams, outside “field” activities and lessons set up in the context of the business world.

“This kind of integrated learning has been going on in . . . Europe and in Asia. . . . It’s time for the United States to catch up,” said P. Christopher Earley, dean of Purdue’s Krannert School of Management.

“The engineers we need are not the (pure) theoretical engineers but those who can apply real knowledge to real problems,” he said.

Such thinking reflects a change in the jobs picture, with middle skills workers, such as bank tellers and office and shop-floor workers, shrinking to about 15 percent of the work force from 25 percent in 1985, according to research by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Meanwhile, manufacturers say they cannot find enough young people with the mathematics skills to run computerized, sophisticated machinery. Software companies bemoan a scarcity of software engineers and other IT workers despite the fast-growing emergence of “coding” academies.

Upper-class, white-collar employers are similarly melding what once were standalone silos of proprietary information.

Keith Bergelt, a former Motorola executive and CEO of Open Invention Network, said companies that once leveraged their closely held proprietary information must now work in a world where 80 percent of the value of intellectual property “lives in intangibles, not hard assets.”

“We need a different kind of person to capture the asset value of companies — people who can use technology, analytics, thinking skills and who have a legal background, and who can grow beyond being an intellectual-property or general counsel into acting as a strategist,” Bergelt said, citing IIT’s IP management and markets master’s degree as a program that aims to produce such graduates.

IIT’s data science master’s degree operates as a joint program between the computer science and applied mathematics departments for a similar reason — to teach students to analyze and make sense of huge sets of data that grow exponentially.

“The skills we teach now are skills that people couldn’t have learned 10 years ago,” said Fred Hickernell, chairman of IIT’s applied mathematics department. “The tools have changed because the computer power and volume of data have changed.”

Kwang-Wu Kim, the new president and CEO of Columbia College, said the college empowers students to create new careers rather than trains them for existing careers.

He wants to see more online coursework to enhance the classroom experience and emphasize collaborative learning.

“The idea of a student studying alone is obsolete,” Kim said. “We are thinking of new learning laboratories that combine technology with collaborative learning. Students learn more by studying in groups, and there is a greater expectation that students see results in teams.”


Twitter: @sandraguy

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