Commentary: Education Planner

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As high unemployment continues, college students and their parents want to know what employers are looking for. While almost any business needs employees with specific skills — market analysis or web

development, for example — students can be trained in those areas. What top employers look for when hiring new employees, according to a survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, are the capabilities that a broader education provides: critical thinking, complex problem solving, strong communication skills, civic responsibility and the ability to lead.

Why? Because employers realize that with the world changing so quickly, it’s impossible to know what challenges their employees will face tomorrow. Graduates of top liberal arts and sciences institutions have the versatility to respond to that ever-changing environment.

It’s true that the recipient of a liberal arts education may not be as “real-world ready” at graduation as a student who chooses a more targeted, vocational college curriculum. But students who are educated in a narrow field are out of luck if there are no jobs in that specific industry or sector.

We believe that combining a broad liberal arts education with experiential learning opportunities is the best way to prepare students for an ever-evolving workplace. Whitman College graduate Jonathan Sposato is a great example. A politics major, Sposato combined his liberal arts education with his real-world experience as a bartender and his time as a Microsoft employee to help launch two startup companies — both of which were sold to Google — before going on to cofound the online tech news site GeekWire.

Of course, undergraduates everywhere should be more prepared for real-world job seeking. To do that, colleges need to do a better job of connecting students with employers and the wider community, helping them build a network of contacts and opening their minds to emerging industries and organizations.

One example of the many opportunities students have to connect with influential business leaders occurred recently on our campus when alumna Megan Clubb, the president and CEO of Baker Boyer Bank, spent time networking with Whitman students at an informal gathering. Clubb, who is also a San Francisco Federal Reserve Board member, started her undergraduate career at the University of Washington studying oceanography before transferring to Whitman to major in economics. We also see great opportunity for those with a liberal arts background in the expanding world of entrepreneurship. In an age when students can create and run startups from their dorm rooms, an M.B.A. is no longer the gatekeeper to running a business.

To encourage our undergraduates to apply their critical thinking skills to entrepreneurial solutions, Whitman recently collaborated with Walla Walla Community College, Walla Walla University, the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Development Center to hold a business plan competition. Contestants were asked to propose creative solutions to the issue of glass waste, a problem that arises because we don’t have glass-recycling facilities in our part of Washington state. Local students submitted a number of impressive business proposals that detailed innovative ideas focused on sustainability, feasibility and profitability. The winning proposal suggested crushing and tumbling waste glass to create glass pieces that look like natural sea glass for use in home décor and landscape design.

Students should continue to see the value in pursuing a broad education, and employers should recognize that there is no substitute for an employee who knows how to question, how to think and, more important, how to creatively solve both the problems we see today as well as the problems we have not yet foreseen.

Kimberly Rolfe is director for business engagement at Whitman College in Walla Walla. She specializes in connecting students and recent graduates to internships and career opportunities in the private sector, as well as providing training and experiences that will prepare them for career entry.

CEO Adviser: Paving the Way to Digital

CEO Adviser: Paving the Way to Digital

How the Northwest’s leading asphalt company is embracing technology.
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“What’s the ROI on software?”

This is the question facing many leaders of traditional mid-market companies. For a well-established family-run business, there is often the temptation to invest in assets that can generate revenue faster in the short term instead of technology upgrades that don’t deliver immediate profit.

When I first met Mike Lee, president of Lakeside Industries, he asked an interesting question: “Are we doing the right things when it comes to technology?” Lee understood that his 600-person asphalt company in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood had to make technology a strategic objective in order to ensure the future of the business.

Here are a few ways Lee showed leadership in making ones and zeroes important in an industry focused on rock and oil.

Establish crystal clarity about how digital can support the overall vision.

Lee had a compelling “why” and vision for the company in place: to make a lasting impact on our community, our relationships and our people, and to be the low-cost supplier that provides an exceptional customer experience. The core values focused on safety, environmental responsibility, quality and profitability. But there was no solid technology vision to realize it, and IT didn’t have a presence at the business table, so Lee made a point to involve the CFO/acting CIO. The beauty of setting a digital vision is in its simplicity — not looking at every solution available, but only those that can further the company’s reason for being. In Lakeside’s case, how could new technologies bring it closer to its employees, its community and its customers? How could software make it improve efficiency, visibility and environmental commitments? When Lee looked closely at his vision, it became clear that technology could help bolster it, but that it couldn’t happen without tech being elevated.

Identify the gaps that technology can fill. 

“There is more to our business than asphalt and paving,” says Lee. “We have to keep up with plant and equipment management, communications, competitors, security and environmental regulations.” Lee met with his CIO and IT directors to determine how technology was going to add value inside and outside the business. The firm developed a digital roadmap that provided clarity around the technology initiatives people were going to work on; for each, it set accountabilities, timelines and goals. They used this roadmap to manage ongoing progress and to determine whether or not the new “shiny technology objects” matched the vision and strategy. The most important initiative was to replace Lakeside’s aging enterprise resource planning system. This would require modernizing processes and technology infrastructure to support collaboration with business management across the company — a broad impact to the business. Another key initiative was improving how it estimated projects and managed customer relationships. This new system would only be successful with buy-in from the people in the field using the software.

Communicate the importance of technology to the management team.

While its employees are part of a family, Lakeside Industries is also a distributed business run by a group of autonomous regional managers who needed to believe in the vision. Lee presented the specifics of the strategy to all managers: The message was “IT can no longer be just a department.” Business and technology leaders — who rarely interfaced — had the opportunity to discuss and debate what was at stake. Their conclusion? Software isn’t a gutsy gamble or a bold bet — it’s table stakes. The result was a set of guiding principles, alignment and excitement for what’s ahead. For the first time in the company’s history, business and technology people now have harmony around a shared digital vision — working together as one to contribute to healthier profitability and improved customer relations. In the end, Lakeside Industries’ road to the future has been paved with much more than good intentions. 

TIM GOGGIN is president of Sappington, a Seattle consulting firm that advises clients on digital change. Reach him at tim.goggin@sappington.co.