Thursday, April 18, 2024

Round table: Business & education, back to the books


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It wasn’t that long ago that workers did the same job for the same company for their entire career. But that’s rarely the case anymore. Companies operating in today’s dynamic economy require workers to gain a breadth of skills, including those not traditional associated with employment, and update them as business changes. Teaching them is no longer a singular effort either. Educators need businesses to shape curriculums, for example, ensuring graduates are properly equipped. Business North Carolina recently gathered a group of experts, representing education and business, to discuss how the two groups can work together and why it’s important.

Coastal Federal Credit Union, Duke Energy and Lenovo sponsored the discussion, which was moderated by NCBCE’s Caroline Sullivan. The discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Photography by John Gessner

How do businesses help schools better prepare students?

SULLIVAN: Students need career awareness, especially when they’re young. NCBCE has been running Students@Work, an annual career awareness program for middle school students, for 12 years. It gives about 50,000 students the opportunity to spend some time with businesses in their community. It was done virtually the past two years because of the pandemic, and next year it will be a hybrid — a mix of in-person and virtual components. The virtual option has improved with technology, and it’s a way for students to hear from professionals and industries outside of their community. It’s a good option for many schools.

ECKEL: Students@Work has been highly successful. It evolved from discussions between NCBCE and Bob Eaves, former Gov. Bev Perdue’s husband and board member for several education-related organizations. He allowed NCBCE to take his idea, which was being used in Craven County schools, and apply it statewide. Its goal is simple: expose middle school students to industries within their community and the skills they need to work at them. A big reason that it’s a great program is it didn’t take machinations to make it happen. It only required an understanding of how NCBCE members can engage with teachers and schools to bring students to workplaces or vice versa. NCBCE simply asked its members to participate. It never asked for an appropriation or anything else to make it happen. The business community can engage with teachers and students in many ways. While companies are doing a mix of the same and different things, at the end of the day it’s our responsibility to do something. Teachers are our most important workforce. And students are our most important resource. So, we must ensure they continue to grow with us as employers and as a state. If we don’t engage, we’re losing out on an opportunity. The state’s major industries are changing. Once known primarily for manufacturing, textiles and agriculture, it has more of a knowledge-based and technology-based economy today. While those legacy industries will always be part of the state, today’s workers need different skills. Educators need to understand that their students will need them to join North Carolina’s workforce.  So, we have to evolve education to teach them. Teachers and students — K through 12 and beyond — need to understand the growing importance of soft skills, for example, such as showing up on time, running a meeting, understanding how to be successful and negotiating your way through an organization. An individual’s success depends on them.

GRESSETT: Moore Square hosted an NCBCE work-based learning takeover a few years ago. All classes were engaged by businesses, both local and from across the state. Representatives from Google, for example, helped students tear apart computers, and Red Hat employees wrote software coding with them. Teachers were impressed, and students thought it was super cool. It also helped soft-skills development. Businesspeople can teach them easier than a teacher or career development coordinator, like me. Those communication lessons are priceless. I enjoy helping students consider careers. They owe it to themselves to think about what they’ll do after high school. It’s not about creating stress for them. It’s simply food for thought and not written in stone. We’ve been working to create a career and college-going culture at our school. I like to expose my sixth-graders to college mascots, for example, starting them thinking about what is college. It gives them something tangible. But I list career first for a reason. College requires an explanation. It’s not only N.C. State, Duke, UNC and other four-year institutions. It’s lifelong learning. I have a good relationship with people at Wake Technical Community College, which offers degrees and workforce training for people at different points in their careers. We include them in everything we do. 

How is technology shaping school-business interaction?

BABSON: Lenovo has an education segment. It’s focused on meeting the needs of teachers and students by providing resources to them. There has been a technology explosion in education over the last 24 months, in large part because of the pandemic and its associated stay-at-home orders. Getting devices to teachers and students is one thing. But as that investment has been made, it has been critical to assemble solutions for implementation, too. Those have to help teachers bridge the digital divide and engage students. Technology needs to be incorporated without interrupting the pedagogy. Teachers cannot be information-technology support; that’s not their job. Technology opens new educational possibilities. The biggest is remote learning, which can be a challenge sometimes. But technology also allows teachers and students to connect differently. It’s one thing if a student misses a test question, but what if 10 students miss the same one? Machine learning and artificial intelligence, for example, can reveal patterns in how students learn. That helps teachers identify issues and adjust how material is presented to improve comprehension. That’s a big one, but there are others. If a student didn’t understand a lesson the first time it was presented, technology allows them to review a recorded lesson plan. And video in the classroom gives teachers a closer view of their students, allowing them to pick up nonverbal clues that may have been overlooked before. Then they can talk to students through texts or emojis, ways that may provide a better connection. These are the types of things we see when talking to teachers, IT administrators and students. The pandemic has brought many negatives. We get that. But it also spurred changes in education that will instill more resolve in students moving forward. It will be interesting to watch unfold.

How does working with businesses affect students?

SULLIVAN: Lenovo sponsors NCBCE’s Ready, Set, APP! competition. It tasks high school students with developing an app that solves a problem in their school or community. When we built the competition, Lenovo leadership wanted to ensure that it was a level playing field. Many urban schools, for example, have more resources than rural and less funded schools. And it needed to have a statewide focus. We started with more than 44 teams from 20 counties, including nine that are Tier 1 — the most economically distressed according to N.C. Department of Commerce. Students who had never done anything like this before felt supported to tackle something difficult. Not only do they have to identify a problem, but they have to figure out a solution then write the code that makes the app work. But not every school district has a teacher who can help students accomplish that. So, we engaged paid student interns who had app-design experience. They work with the teams and in the process learn things such as scheduling office hours and supporting people. They understand that their team’s performance is a reflection on them because they’re the leader. We’re providing that workplace-learning opportunity. In the final part of the competition, students pitch their app to a panel of judges. It’s a little like the TV show “Shark Tank.” Lenovo assembles a great panel of early career professionals. The most compelling speakers for a student are young professionals. Businesses want their president to speak far too often. While that has benefits, it’s easier for students to connect with a young professional.

BABSON: From Lenovo’s perspective, Ready, Set, APP! gives us the opportunity to help students develop important workplace skills. In a past competition, a team of Pitt County students developed an app that tracked the location of school buses. That is an acute problem that a student recognizes. A parent might not recognize it to the same degree. So, identifying and solving that problem is pretty cool. But it’s more than the technical skills such as writing the code that makes the app work. The challenge creates an opportunity to teach soft skills, too. The student intern leaders, for example, develop the ability run meetings, schedule workflow and respect deadlines. Many people only think of Lenovo as a technology company, which only hires technically trained people such as computer engineers. That’s true, but to be someone who’s highly considered and successful at the company, you have to be able to communicate. You must prove that you can work with others. When someone says your idea is bad, you have to be able to accept that criticism. And you have to be able to tell someone their idea is bad without telling them that their idea is bad. Fostering those skills is as important as fostering the coding and engineering. It’s critical to bring all that together and a main reason that we’re part of the competition.

ECKEL: The challenge was never only about developing a technology platform. In the real world, you have to communicate the value proposition associated with it. The communication aspect of it was a real component of judging.

GRESSETT: If students can visualize themselves in a career, school becomes easier. Succeeding in a math class they dislike or listening to a social studies lecture that’s uninteresting to them becomes more entertaining than interacting with their smartphone when they understand the reasons that they’re in it. Businesspeople can help explain that relevance. Students need help with their communication skills coming out of the pandemic, when most interactions were done in a chat box or on a screen. They speak differently to an adult who’s visiting than they do to a teacher or friend. Returning to person-to-person interaction, and being able to do it in a professional manner, has a new spin after being in front of computers for so long. 

HOGAN: NCBCE is an opportunity for business and industry to lean into the classroom. Without it, they are like ships in the night. They pass right by one another. Apprenticeship is a big piece for Siemens. It’s in our DNA. It’s what we do as a German company. We develop students into valued employees through that process. We have a strong educational partner in Central Piedmont Community College. There are wonderful schools in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. They feed us many great students. It’s important for us to partner with other organizations to ensure that we’re providing opportunities. Our apprenticeship process starts in the fall, when we recruit students. They decide which company they want to apprentice with in the spring. It’s a two-way process. We select apprentices, and students choose to apprentice with us. A lot of resources are involved in ensuring that apprenticeships move forward and are successful. Some students, usually those apprenticing in mechatronics, mechanical or welding, go in a separate direction when their apprenticeship is done. But they are few and far between. After being with us four years, during which they complete a degree at no cost to them and earn a regular paycheck, they choose to stay and are quickly hired. They easily progress at Siemens. I spent more than 20 years across several stops while working for the N.C. Community College System before I joined Siemens Energy. Every school and company that does well has great leadership. There’s an advocate. There’s a principal or career development coordinator saying this is important. At Siemens Energy, vice president Brian Maragno, vice president of large generator product line, and Dawn Braswell, training manager and head of the apprentice program, are saying this is important to us. Some may question these efforts when times get tough, but it’s who we are. It’s important for Siemens Energy, students and North Carolina.

How does working with businesses help teachers?

HOGAN: As a large company, we hire for many different skills. We need engineers, project managers and human-resources folks. But what we really want is innovative people. They bring diversity of thought. They step up and share their opinion. It’s those soft skills that we’re looking to hire. So, it’s on us as an industry to help educators create the future employees that we’ll want to hire, moving North Carolina forward in the process. STEMersion was a beneficial summer program, which unfortunately was idled because of the pandemic. It involved Central Piedmont Community College, about 50 teachers from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and 10 industry partners. Each spent a half or full day taking these teachers through their operations, explaining what they do and how they get it done. It was an opportunity for teachers to connect what the industry partners do and expect of new hires with what is being taught in their classrooms. It was always interesting to hear what teachers identified as relevant to their lessons. A math teacher, for example, saw metrology — the science of measurement and its applications — during the Siemens Energy visit. Those skills, which directly relate to a local industry, can be discussed and taught in math class. That adds relevance to lessons. Teachers are trained how to teach. They have classroom skills, but they don’t necessarily have industry skills. It’s key that we share that information. Where else will they pick it up? 

SULLIVAN: They won’t pick up those skills and information anywhere else. It also is important to recognize how things change. If you’ve been in the classroom for 20 years, the work world has become substantially different during that time. Businesses need to engage with students and teachers. Teachers need to be able to make those connections but also hear from businesses about what their students need to become successful employees of tomorrow. 

GRESSETT: Businesses bring relevance to the curriculum, whether by speaking in the classroom or participating in work-based learning. They can come to us, or we can bring students to them. Experiencing work firsthand is eye opening for students and teachers. During the height of the pandemic, it would’ve been easy for businesses to lose their philanthropic focus. We need businesses to come back to the table and invite us to their places of business. Work from home isn’t going away. Flex schedules for businesses shouldn’t go away. And volunteerism shouldn’t go away. The company where my daughter recently started work, for example, pays employees for 40 hours of community service. That allows her to return to North Carolina from Texas to participate in a community leadership program. She wouldn’t be able to do that without it. That’s a big deal for that company, supporting philanthropic community outreach. Our economy is flourishing. I hope that as leadership teams at companies plot their course for exiting the pandemic, they consider volunteerism, especially for schools. Schools need businesses in them, and we need to bring our kids to them. It makes a world of difference to educators and students. 

BABSON: Lenovo has an advisory council, which includes IT administrators and teachers from K-12 schools and higher education. They share their classroom experiences and the solutions they need. That directs our help: What are their pitfalls that we can help them overcome through technology that we provide. That level of communication, keeping it open and the benefits it drives, is a big piece for me.

What benefits do students bring to businesses?

BABSON: I had a college student on my team last summer. We assigned her to a sustainability and technology project, which was huge and had lots of visibility. She brought unique knowledge and her own viewpoint, which is completely different than mine. I thought I had a solid viewpoint on sustainability. I did not. I learned from her. The ability to have someone come in with a fresh point of view, who can look at a problem or an opportunity differently, is probably the biggest takeaway. It doesn’t matter that she was coming from the University of South Carolina. It could have been someone from middle school or Wake Tech. People of different ages bring different perspectives. Business leaders need to recognize that and bring it out. It’s a breath of fresh air. Their different backgrounds help you look at problems differently. When you look at a problem differently, you solve it differently. And maybe that solution is more efficient, allowing you to do something better in less time.

HOGAN: I had about a half-dozen students working on campus in summer 2020. They were supposed to return to school in August. My folks didn’t want to let them go. They wanted to extend their time through the fall because they did a great job. Some of them stayed. Others had school responsibilities, such as athletics, so they couldn’t. 

How can a business begin working with students?

GRESSETT: I support teachers by finding businesspeople who can augment the topics that they’re teaching. I regularly use NCBCE’s Navigator, a free online tool that connects educators to businesspeople and work-based learning opportunities. The Navigator is available statewide, so any school system, from big to small, urban to rural, can use it. The people it has helped me find have been incredible, even during the pandemic’s restrictions. Companies could’ve taken a year or two off from working with students, but most didn’t. Many really came through. N.C. State chemistry department faculty, for example, dropped off activities for our students, then they explained how to do them virtually. Some businesspeople may feel intimidated by the prospect of speaking to 20 or 30 students, but most kids appreciate that attention. It may force you out of your comfort zone, but in the end, it’s rewarding, and you feel good about it. 

SULLIVAN: I’ve never had anyone involved with the Navigator who didn’t enjoy engaging with students and teachers. They ask where else can they go. Most of us feel hurried, and we don’t think we have time to help. But the Navigator makes it easy to participate. 

BABSON: If you ask someone to talk about their job, and they’re not totally geeked out to do it, then they’re in the wrong job. Whenever I’m asked to talk about what I do, I’m totally nerding out.

ECKEL: The thought of speaking to students may be intimidating for some businesspeople, but at NCBCE, we often hear them ask how to engage with students, teachers and schools. It’s easy to do. Students are asking for it. Teachers are asking, too. They want other ways to drive skills within their classrooms because they understand their importance. If we aren’t taking time to engage those groups, then we’re, quite frankly, shirking our responsibility. 

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