Idaho Technology by Bob Lokken: Smart choices help students meet Idaho workforce needs.

BOB LOKKEN, CEO, WhiteCloud Analytics and member of the Idaho Technology Council executive committeeSeptember 10, 2013 

Bob Lokken.JPG

Bob Lokken

Idaho’s tech sector is one the fastest-growing industries in our state. But to keep up the momentum, we need a consistent supply of “human capital,” if you will. New talent is the lifeblood that fuels the growth of every technology company, and an available pool of highly educated workers is needed for these companies to thrive. Not only do we need more students with a focus in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but we also need more students with competencies in other highly prized skill sets. From an employer’s perspective, there are many critical skills that make a successful professional. Students need to understand how the choices they make when they are young (early teens) will directly influence future career opportunities. Here are a few things students can do to better prepare for the workforce of the future:

• Students need to challenge themselves by taking the most difficult and engaging classes they are capable of tackling. Taking an easy class simply to get an A is a proven poor use of time when one could be learning. Employers generally consider grade-point average to be a threshold requirement, and above a competent level they turn their attention to a prospective employee’s ability to embrace challenge, the grit to work through adversity, perseverance, etc. A track record of taking the easy road will not prepare students for the future.

• Learn to think — not memorize. Our emerging knowledge-based economy urgently needs workers who can think critically and creatively and who can both analyze and synthesize information. The business world is full of problems that need to be solved and new trails that need to be blazed. Critical and creative thinking is valued because it helps develop innovative solutions to new challenges. These thinking skills can be learned and must be practiced by anyone who wants to become proficient.

• Regardless of field of interest, students benefit from taking math and science classes, which improve logic and critical thinking. Math and science also open a wide and rich set of career opportunities. Currently we have a surplus of graduates in “soft” and “conversational” disciplines. Far too often, students select these majors because they neglected foundational math and science skills during their high school years, and thus they feel limited to majors that require little or no math. As a result of this longstanding trend, there are commonly four or more graduates for every one job opening for the soft disciplines. In contrast, jobs in science, technology, engineering and math are in high demand. It’s forecasted that by 2018, Idaho will need to fill 41,000 STEM-type positions. We will have many fewer than 41,000 graduates in those fields, and as a result these will be the highest paying jobs for graduates. If students want opportunities to pursue these high-demand and high-wage jobs, it’s critical they develop a strong foundation in math and science early on.

• Very few business challenges exist in a vacuum. Therefore students must develop good communication and people skills. Students become more desirable employees by acquiring teamwork and collaboration skills, as well as curiosity and humility. Employers frequently complain about the lack of good writing and verbal skills in graduates — the No. 1 cited shortcoming. Sometimes the root cause is lack of critical-thinking skills, and sometimes it is an inability to communicate and collaborate effectively. Regardless of the root cause, you must be able to work effectively with others.

• Students need to think about the process of getting a job and adding value to an organization well before they start looking for employment. In general, if you pursue a challenging science or math degree, school may be tough, but finding a job will be relatively easy. If you pursue a major in a discipline with many graduates and few job openings, you should work to finish in the top 10 percent of your class. Employment in these fields will be highly competitive, so you need to be ready.

Building a stronger Idaho workforce for the future starts by improving the quality of graduates today.

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