Commentary: Training our Workforce to Meet Demand

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Business and community leaders in Seattle and the Puget Sound region have built a strong foundation for a diverse economy, but developing a vibrant economic base is not enough. Making it sustainable is critical. In order to maintain the regional competitive advantage we have built, we must deepen our local talent pool to support the businesses that create new, innovative jobs.

An increasing number of those jobs require advanced education and training in critical sectors. In fact, Washington needs to add 9,000 graduate degrees per year in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields through 2019 to keep up with employer demand. Seattle, like Boston and San Jose, has a bachelor’s degree attainment rate of nearly 25 percent. However, when comparing graduate degree attainment, Seattle has a rate that is only two-thirds of those cities. It would take more than 100,000 graduate degrees to reach the per capita rate of Boston and San Jose.

Further highlighting our needs in higher education, Seattle ranks comparatively low when it comes to availability of part-time graduate degree programs that can support the schedules and goals of our region’s working professionals. Per capita, Seattle’s supply of part-time graduate degrees is less than half of cities with similarly high attainment levels of bachelor’s degrees.

Seeing this educational gap, Northeastern University, a global, experiential, nonprofit research university based in Boston, is opening a graduate campus in Seattle’s burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood in January 2013. Northeastern has developed 15 professional graduate degrees tailored to Seattle’s needs in science, engineering, technology, health care, business, education and nonprofit.

Each degree is specifically designed to meet the talent demands of our local innovation economy. A master’s degree in information assurance, for example, is regionally in high demand and also tailored to some of Seattle’s top-tier IT companies and their workforce needs.

We have worked closely with local business leaders for the past year—through more than 250 meetings—to identify the areas of graduate education needed to propel our economy forward and to retain companies known for innovation, companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Seattle BioMed and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

We’re also responding to the need for more accessible graduate degree programs through a hybrid delivery system that combines classes at the South Lake Union campus and online course work. This hybrid approach is designed to suit Seattle’s high-tech culture, combining mobile and wired education with the benefits of face-to-face faculty/peer interaction and teamwork. It provides high-caliber learning with a level of flexibility that allows both busy professionals and stay-at-home parents to get the education they need to take the next step in their careers.

We are inviting companies to get directly involved through partnerships that enable them to help design curricula and customize programs in a way that produces the skilled workforce those firms need to prosper and compete globally.
But purely educational partnerships can only be part of the solution to the challenges faced by our region. We need to develop a strategic approach to broader partnerships involving business and higher education. One possible model for this is the collaboration between the Northeastern Integrated Initiative in Global Health, driven by faculty in Boston, and Seattle BioMed, to develop tailored graduate courses for Seattle and explore joint research initiatives.

Institutions of higher education should be committed to collaborative relationships with area employers who are driving the local economy, thereby creating a truly educated, highly skilled and competitive workforce that aligns talent with industry needs. It’s innovation at work.

Tayloe Washburn
is the graduate campus CEO and dean of Northeastern University–Seattle. He has held leadership roles in education throughout his career. He was recently named Economic Development Champion of the Year by enterpriseSeattle, a regional economic development council.

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.