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.

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

If nothing else, significant anniversaries give us reason to pause and ponder.
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Round-number-anniversary stories are an overused tool in the journalism workshop, maybe because they’re still helpful in pausing to assess where we are, how we got here and where we’re going.

In the case of two such round-number anniversaries being marked this year, those questions about where we’ve been and where we’re going have literal application because they pertain to two hugely significant developments in transportation, both important to this region, although only one is closely identified with it.

This year, Boeing celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding and the interstate highway system marks 60 years since its official launch.

It is possible to overstate the significance to Seattle of Bill Boeing’s venture into aviation. It’s not true that without Boeing there wouldn’t be a Seattle, at least one that anyone would have heard of. Seattle was already someplace by 1916, thanks to the port and the railroads — the earlier contributions of two other modes of transport to Seattle’s creation — and events like the Klondike gold rush. Boeing didn’t emerge as the world’s preeminent commercial-aerospace company until well into its middle age.

But would the Seattle region have grown to the size it is and the importance it claims without being one of the world’s centers of aerospace design and production? Would it have developed the tech industries it thrives upon today without the foundation Boeing laid? Would it be a home to a thick portfolio of nationally significant companies? That’s highly debatable and quite doubtful.

As for where we’re going, wherever it is, we’ll likely get there by plane for a long time hence. For all the talk of hyperloops and other technologies, the airplane is still a remarkably efficient, productive and safe method of getting people and stuff from one place to another. There may be revolutions in design, materials and propulsion to rival the transition from propeller to jet, but short of teleportation, the airplane’s place in transportation is secure.

Much less secure are Boeing’s and Seattle’s places in that future. A lot of airplane-building rivals have come and gone in 100 years, and more are coming. It would be nice for both if Boeing and Seattle were still relevant to the discussion of the aerospace industry when the 200th anniversary of Boeing’s founding occurs. 

Meanwhile, the interstate highway system gets little love and a lot of abuse these days, credited with urban demolition, suburban sprawl and desecration of the countryside, not to mention the intangible crime of encouraging Americans to race to their destinations while ignoring the joys and sights of the journey.

Some of the blame is earned; much of it is silly. For people and things, the destination usually matters more than the journey. The interstates rendered the destination possible by making the journey faster and safer, even more enjoyable. And lamentations about not seeing or appreciating the country when viewed from the interstate are sometimes wrong. Take the drive on I-82 between Ellensburg and Yakima, or on I-90 just west of Snoqualmie summit, and try not to be impressed by either the scenery or the engineering feats.

Your cargo, however, is not on a sightseeing trip. It has places to be and work to do, which underscores the massive contribution the interstate system has made as an incredibly powerful economic engine. The modern American supply chain is a wondrous thing; it doesn’t happen without a network of limited-access divided highways, which, by the way, took a lot of traffic off city streets and rural roads, improving life for many.

Unloved as Interstates 5, 90 and 405 are for their congestion, noise, unsightliness, etc., and as expensive as it’s going to be to expand, rebuild and maintain them, give them credit for making urban life possible.  

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.