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NCWE Board Member Blog - Dr. Ken Warden
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Improving Perceptions via Proactive Business Partner Engagement

  Dr. Ken Warden
  Dean College of Applied Science and Technology
  University of Arkansas-Fort Smith



It is often said that perception is reality, and nowhere is that truer than in higher education. Despite our efforts to the contrary, higher education institutions are often branded as bureaucratic, inefficient, and slow to respond to workforce needs, preferring to isolate ourselves in the lofty ivory towers of academia.

A Huffington Post article put it best: “Colleges and universities must explain better what they do while working more efficiently and creatively to do so.”

At the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith, this perception couldn’t be further from the truth. With roots as a community college, UAFS has a rich history of responding to the local business needs and evolving as an institution to continue meeting the demands of its diverse community.

The challenge is changing the perception. We want to make sure all of our external constituencies are aware of our programs and became champions for them. But how do we do this?

Extensive, flashy marketing campaigns can only go so far without the proper action to back them up. We knew that to truly change opinion, we had to pay it forward and be proactive in investing time and effort to our community and industry partners. We couldn’t wait on them to come to us wanting solutions; to expect them to invest in us, we needed to step out and engage them first.

One of the ways we did this at UAFS was through Regional Workforce Grants provided by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education (ADHE). The ADHE awarded us $2 million to provide concurrent credit courses to local high school students in two high-demand career fields: robot automation and cyber security. The purpose was to fill two skills gaps in our local workforce, and local industry partners were more than willing to participate, including ABB, ArcBest, Walmart, and the 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard, to name a few.

One core component of our grant was to better introduce students to the “world of work” i.e. job opportunities, educational requirements and professional expectations to high school students. To achieve this, UAFS embedded a mentorship process into the program that was facilitated by the university but largely implemented by industry partners.

This mentorship embedded mid- and upper-level managers of partner organizations into weekly meetings with students. This process informed a new group of community members about our program. By engaging them, our programs became more relevant to them and their work while also exposing them to a pipeline of talent. On the student side, it enhanced the university’s message by having it validated by these well-respected industry experts.

Not only did the mentorship program accomplish these goals, it also increased awareness among both executives and students, ultimately making grassroots champions for our program. It wasn’t just the university shouting our story from the rooftops anymore; it was leaders in our businesses and community who were spreading the news of our impact on workforce development.

So, to change perception, your actions must speak louder than your words. You must be proactive in engaging businesses and organizations to help solve their workforce needs. Only then will the perception - and thus, the reality - of your institution truly change.

To learn more about the grant and its implementation and best practices, join us at the NWCE annual conference in Clearwater, Florida on Wednesday September 26 at 1:30pm in Grand Salon G.

Regional Workforce Grants link:

HuffPost link:

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