Early hands-on experiences key to producing talented workers, experts say

Giving students the opportunity to gain real-world and hands-on experience—in both their higher education careers and in their first internships and jobs—is vital for producing talent that is adaptable to a rapidly changing economy, workforce experts said Tuesday.

That can range from colleges funding internship and experiential learning programs to businesses actively supporting young professionals and giving them room to flex their muscles.

Experts from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors in education and business discussed the challenges and opportunities surrounding the education-through-career pipeline during the panel discussion at the "E2E Convergence: An Indiana Education-to-Employment Conversation" event Tuesday morning at the downtown Indianapolis Marriott. The event was sponsored by Indiana University, IBJ and the Lilly Endowment.

Ray Wallace, chancellor at Indiana University Southeast, said schools need to get students involved in thinking about their careers early and taking advantage of hands-on experiences that can help guide them. That includes encouraging them to be more intentional about utilizing career services centers—beyond just showing up once in the spring of their junior year.

Wallace also said colleges need to be more responsive.

“We are glacially slow—we're getting better—at developing new programs in a timely manner,” Wallace said.

And once students are in the workplace, it can be tempting for employers to be too prescriptive about their work experiences. One solution could be giving new employees ways to take on leadership roles and earn their wings early.

For example, Bridget Boyle, vice president and site head of human resources at Roche Diagnostics, said that one mistake she made when working with a young professionals group was trying to create too much structure.

Her lesson learned was to “get the heck out of the way and let them do what they want to do,” Boyle said.

Another thing employers can to do to help their workers be successful is to focus on equity, said Danette Howard, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at the Lumina Foundation.

Howard said she often sees schools and employers focus on diversity, such as hiring or enrolling students of color. But, she said, that is inadequate.

“Schools and employers need an atmosphere where everyone has opportunity to thrive,” Howard said. “Equity means opportunity to be fully heard and to succeed.”

Jay Roberts, Earlham University’s associate vice president for academic affairs, said students must be prepared to deal with complex unscripted problems where the answers aren't immediately known and the consequences matter.

That means being flexible and nimble. Colleges are responsible for finding ways to let students solve problems like that in the classroom—or at least gain the skills to do that.

The panelists also discussed the challenges of trying to retain workers, especially in an economy where some areas have extremely low unemployment rates.

Blair Milo, Indiana’s secretary of career connections and talent, said the state wants to help companies and colleges form partnerships to provide students with skills and experiences that will make them more employable.

Milo described herself as a “concierge” who can help companies and colleges navigate the often-complex state system.

Ryan Twiss, vice president of regional initiatives at the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, said employers need to invest in retention programs and offer other perks that promote loyalty, not just passively offer things like tuition reimbursement programs.

There has to be a "mind shift" to push employers to move employees to that next skill level, Twiss said.

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