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When it comes to finding young STEMM talent, KC companies yearn for experiential learning

Posted By Alex Erwin, Friday, March 2, 2018

Kansas City has the potential to be in the top 10 cities of peer metros by 2025 as measured by GDP, household income and number of quality jobs (KC Rising). A threat to this goal is a lack of available talent, cited by companies aspiring to grow here. To address this problem, The University of Kansas and AstrumU hosted a College and Career Pathways Summit on the Edwards Campus on February 26th, where experienced panelists discussed the challenges of finding and curating talent in our region.


The panel was moderated by KU Edwards Vice Chancellor David Cook and included Sandy Price, a former Sprint Executive and current Co-Chair of KC Rising who brought a comprehensive understanding of workforce data for our region, Leo Morton, COO of DeBruce Companies and former UMKC Chancellor who delivered unique insights from the transect of industry and academia, Laura Evans, Senior Director of Human Capital and Talent Development at Cerner who brought a comprehensive understanding of scalability, and Chris Gould, the Director of Global Talent Acquisition at Black & Veatch who has extensive experience working with universities to find talent for a company with work all around the globe.


The word of the day seemed to be adaptability, with each panelist citing this trait as the most sought-after in employees. This is for multiple reasons:

  1. Career landscapes and roles are changing quickly

  2. Each challenge at work is often unique and requires measuring the correct response for the situation

  3. Teamwork is essential and depends on the ability to incorporate others’ perspectives


The problem lies in quantifying adaptability. While it’s easy to measure whether someone has basic programming knowledge, it’s much harder to provide evidence that they are capable of working in ambiguous and unstructured environments. This challenge is exacerbated when companies are looking to hire young talent coming out of the university, where the clearest indicator, past work experience, often doesn’t exist. Instead, they’re left with looking for other credentials for competency which include volunteer work, internships, independent projects, and part-time jobs.


There was also strong messaging on how not only is adaptability sought after, but how the lack of it can be detrimental. Laura Evans cautioned against students who haven’t experienced failure or those who have been in an environment so structured that they’ve never faced ambiguity. The concern is that if they haven’t faced ambiguity, then they don’t know their own self-efficacy. They also likely lack self-awareness on how to continue to improve and develop, another highly sought-after quality in employees. Sandy Price echoed these concerns, saying that she’s seen students fail not from a lack of academic training, but from a lack of situational experience.


With the exception of a few exemplar programs, experiential learning isn’t broadly built into our education system (at any level), yet. This gap between rote learning and hands-on experience is not only a barrier to our economic growth but it’s also a disservice to young people who are promised that a degree will make them employable, yet still often find that they come out either unprepared for the workforce or unable to convince employers that they are prepared.


Fortunately, there are efforts underway to change this. In the STEMM space, the KU Biotech Career Accelerator, Edwards Biotech Program, KCKCC Biomanufacturing course, Experiential Engineering Building at Wichita State, an Applied Genomics and Biotechnology minor offered through Kansas State and a Summer Scholars Program at the Beef Cattle Institute, while not a comprehensive list, are some initiatives that either offer or connect students with experiential learning opportunities. BioKansas is also trying to increase visibility and awareness of internship and other experiential opportunities in the life science and biotech space through the BioKansas Internship Portal.


Using AI to address the problem

AstrumU is hoping to solve some of these problems by finding new indicators for these desirable traits that are currently difficult to measure at the university level, as discussed by Adam Wray, CEO. Ultimately, they hope to use machine learning to take student credentials and predict long-term employee success in a specific company or role. Achieving this goal will require massive amounts of data from both industry employees and higher education, and ultimately, more transparency in talent selection processes. AstrumU also aspires to use their technology to make hiring more inclusive. Instead of using luck-based and sometimes somewhat arbitrary selection processes, the software will hopefully eliminate some implicit biases in the applicant selection process by using data and supported outcomes.


On talent Acquisition/Retention

One of the points mentioned by Sandy Price was that the Kansas City area is net migration negative, meaning more people leave than move into the area, putting further stress on our already tight applicant pool.


The panelists had a unified message on the need for collaboration to solve this problem. By showing a potential job candidate diverse employment opportunities within your company and in the region as a whole (and yes, that might require sharing opportunities that exist at competitors) their associated risk with moving to the area will lessen, or for the local folks, may dissuade them from migrating out. Leo Morton also made a really good point - the people that you’re likely seeking are those who have lives outside of work, so the broader Kansas City environment needs to be one where they can thrive.


As Laura Evans noted, a company will never outperform its community. Along those lines, Chris Gould added that even if a talented applicant goes to a competitor, that’s better than them leaving the area for good. Not only might they come back to work for you at some point later in their career, but they could also become a client. The presence of talent in the region will also make the area more appealing for others considering moving here.


How to have an individual Impact

One of the best final comments of the panel came from Sandy Price, who encouraged individual action concurrently within the broader efforts the community hoped to achieve. She reminded everyone that each attendee could impact the talent pipeline in our region through mentoring, sponsoring and advocating for others.


In addition to plugging members into these kinds of mentorship opportunities in the life science community, BioKansas has started ramping up efforts that connect industry and educators in ways that advance current and future talent for our region. If you’re interested in helping with these initiatives, consider getting involved in the BioKansas Talent Development & STEMM Education Committee. Contact Alex Erwin (alex@biokansas.org) for details.  


Tags:  Connect  Education  Training  Workforce Development 

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