Commentary: Education Planner


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.

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

City regulations may be well meaning, but small businesses are feeling put upon.
David Lee founded FareStart in Seattle to train chefs because he believed the homeless would benefit from “the dignity of preparing food as a vocation.” He launched Field Roast, a producer of vegan “meats,” because he considers the mass industrialization of animals as “a blight on our culture.” He has nurtured a caring culture at his SoDo production facility, remodeling the space so production workers have plenty of space and natural light.
So when Seattle passed a paid-sick-leave law mandating a set number of paid days for sick leave, Lee accepted it. But the results have been disappointing.
“For the first time,” he says, “I have employees lying to me. A medical appointment becomes a paid day off.”
The city’s $15 minimum-wage mandate was another challenge.
“It hurts businesses like ours that compete on a national level against companies in places like Arkansas that pay $7 [an hour],” says Lee. But, wanting to do the right thing, this summer Lee boosted the wages of his employees to $15 an hour four years before he was required to do so under the law.
Seattle can be proud that its $15 minimum-wage law has led the way in driving up wages across the country. And because it is being implemented over seven years and at a time when the local economy is strong, there have been relatively few negative impacts (page 20). Similarly, while there may be widespread abuse of sick leave, there is evidence that the ability of workers to take the time off helps prevent the spread of the flu and other harmful viruses.
But each new layer of regulation is an added burden on business. Now the city is adding yet more regulations — one set that will require businesses to set schedules for employees two weeks in advance and yet another that requires landlords to choose tenants in the order applications are submitted. What’s next? 
A requirement that companies hire employees in the order that they applied?
While each regulation may have some logic to it, the cumulative effect is to make it harder for businesses to fulfill their important role as job creators. The rules can be particularly hard on small businesses without the resources to hire staff to deal with the complications regulations create.
Regulations also create bureaucracy. The Seattle Times reported that to enforce a law requiring landlords to select tenants in the order in which they replied, the city would hire two employees at a cost of $200,000 and launch sting operations. Really?
Meanwhile, the city isn’t enforcing basic sanitation laws to prevent the homeless from leaving excrement on city sidewalks. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience came close to shutting down because an illegal encampment just a block away included “tents serving as drug galleries” that made it unsafe for the museum’s employees and visitors. The problem contributed to the shutting down of the nearby House of Hong restaurant and resulted in negative reviews for the museum on websites like Trip Advisor during the important summer tourist season.
It will be interesting to see if the city’s new director of homelessness, appointed in August at an annual salary of $137,500, can address this expanding problem.
“Clearly, what is happening is that government is forcing business to take on the social imperative,” Lee says.
The altruistic entrepreneur accepts that, up to a point. But the city needs to spend more time attending to basic services. And it has to stop pretending it can solve the world’s problems on the backs of small businesses.
Executive Editor