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Utah Business

Not all educations prepare the student for the workforce. Utah is working to change that.

How Utah Schools Are Working To Meet Employer Needs

There’s a fundamental shift taking place at many higher education institutions in Utah. Instead of the traditional time-based learning structure that revolves around credit hours, lectures, and multiple-choice exams, a new approach to education is taking hold that focuses on the students’ demonstrated mastery of skills, abilities, and competencies—all of which are meant to directly align with industry needs.

At LDS Business College, president Bruce Kusch is calling this new approach to learning “Subject Matter Immersion.” Pres. Kusch quotes a 2017 Gallup poll that found “96 percent of college administrators think they’re doing an adequate job of preparing graduates, but only 11 percent of business leaders think college graduates have the important skills they’d like to see.” Many of those skills, Pres. Kusch says, are soft skills such as leadership, professionalism, written and verbal skills, collaboration, and problem-solving. 

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With Subject Matter Immersion, students are thrown into real-world, work-environment scenarios from day one. For example, Pres. Kusch explains how on the first day of an accounting class students are told they are now the accounting department of the Legacy Cookie Company and their first task is to create last quarter’s financial statements. “All semester long they learn accounting by being immersed in accounting as the accounting department for the Legacy Cookie Company.”

Accounting isn’t the only program undergoing the Subject Matter Immersion transformation. Pres. Kusch says his goal is that there will be full implementation for all LDS Business College courses by this fall. 

“We’ve got to do something that’s dramatic and that’s different, that will prepare these young people for a world that’s dynamic and ever-changing,” he explains. “As they go into the workforce… the specifics of what they learn now will change, but how to learn, how to be agile, and how to be able to adapt, those are the things that will keep them employees and successful for a lifetime.”

Creating successful employees is the ultimate goal behind the latest push towards Competency-Based Education. CBE has been around for decades, but has seen a resurgence in Utah’s technical colleges thanks in part to the work that’s being done at Salt Lake Community College—a founding member of the Competency-Based Education Network.

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Eric Heiser, dean and CTE director at the School of Applied Technology and Technical Specialties at Salt Lake Community College, explains that competency-based education removes time as the constant and instead makes learning the constant and time the variable—meaning students no longer have to wait for a semester to start their classes and programs. 

“The first reason for SLCC’s adoption of CBE stemmed from the recognition that the federal definition of clock-hour was both archaic and onerous when it comes to evaluating student learning,” explains Mr. Heiser. “The clock-hour model measures learning as a function of time, equating learning to students who literally sit in seats for 50 minutes out of every hour.”  

What also makes the CBE curriculum different is the requirement of students to prove they have mastered the material before they can move on to the next level of competency. “No more C’s get degrees,” he explains. Students in SLCC’s CBE programs, “have to receive 80 percent or above in all areas, in all competencies, before they can move on.” This requirement, Mr. Heiser explains, helps employers who hire SLCC graduates know they’re gaining employees who have proven they have mastered the skills necessary to be successful in their given trade.

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To ensure the curriculum is focused on the skills and competencies Utah employers actually need, SLCC, as well as the eight colleges that make up the Utah System of Technical Colleges, work closely with industry leaders to develop their programs and class curriculum. For every program, there is an advisory committee of industry leaders that works to develop programs that align student competencies with industry needs. 

“We take our lead from industry. We’re responding to needs as they occur and adjusting our programs accordingly,” says Mr. Heiser. “We play a very critical role in our economy and we want to be even more of a critical player… so we’re top of mind when the industry says we need X, Y, or Z training.”

By working directly with industry leaders to help create innovative programs and up-to-date curriculum, Utah’s higher education institutions are ensuring students are ready to fill our state’s workforce needs. And when we can meet our growing workforce demands with an in-state workforce, we are that much closer to guaranteeing our state’s continued economic success.