BHSU listens to needs of workforce leaders

Pictured from the left are Steve Meeker, Kory Menken, and Laurie Nichols. BHSU leaders hosted a listening session with community workforce officials to help plan better ways the university can provide trained workers for future employment. Pioneer photo by Paul Baker

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SPEARFISH — Black Hills State University hosted a listening session in collaboration with business owners on Nov. 12 and 14 at the Joy Center. 

Business owners met with BHSU President Laurie Nichols, SEDC Executive Director Kory Menken, and Vice President for University Advancement Steve Meeker who facilitated the meeting.

Businesses and organizations represented include, Department of Labor, Northern Hills Training Center, Spearfish Economic Development, Landmark Realty, Ainsworth-Benning, among others and of course several BHSU leaders.

“Workforce development really is a top priority for Spearfish Economic Development,” Menken said. “As a jolt it is for the business community, that’s why it’s a top priority for us. We kept hearing it from our businesses. So as a matter of fact, when we updated our teaching plan earlier this year, we actually made workforce development one of the five primary strategies, so we’re really putting a lot of focus on it.”

Menken said one of the action steps within the strategy is to facilitate open discussions with post-secondary education initiations on initiatives to customize their curriculums and establish new programs to meet the workforce needs in the business community. 

President Nichols noted that while BHSU is not unloading a new strategic plan and will continue under the plan currently in place, which the university did decide that there would be three areas that will be gain a higher focus. The first is enrollment, which is self-explanatory.

The second area focuses on aligning academic programs offered at BHSU with the workforce needs in the community and the region.

“That is just to do a really thorough review of our academic portfolio that we offer,” Nichols said. “That’s majors, minors, and certificates offered at BH with what we here from employment. So industry and businesses in the area to see how well aligned we are and if there are gaps, to identify those gaps so that we can begin working unison. That’s really in a nutshell what this is all about tonight.”

One aspect of bringing success to this issue is looking at the programs offered at BHSU to make sure that the university can offer trained employees for the area. The other aspect is to make sure employers have a real presence on the campus. 

“I’m gonna say, quite frankly, I think that’s missing a little bit right now, so it’s an area that I hope we can step up more as we move forward,” Nichols said.

Nichols said that employers may access and come to the campus as well as recruit part-time student workers or employ them and develop pipeline employment programs such as apprenticeships, internships, and through practicum, ultimately leading to permanent full-time employment opportunities for students and employers.

“So tonight, we invited you to come talk to us and that’s really what we wanted you to do. We want you to share in the broadest sense your employment needs and how you might see Black Hills State University being a part of the solution to those needs,” Nichols said. 

Suggestions from business leaders that followed included having more universal terminology amongst the university and businesses recruiting students so that students know what is asked of them, and recruiters know what they’re capable of. 

Another suggestion referenced job fairs, which would possibly mend the disconnect on what students are capable of.

“What if we had a job fair day, but it was the other way around. Like a portfolio day, where the students actually did a showcase all there, and you can invite all of the employers in. That might be kind of cool,” Meg Manke of Rose Group International said. 

Director of Corporate and Career Development Hans Nelson, said, “It’s called a reverse career fair, USD does it. I’ve heard pros and cons of each. Because imagine then 500 students in one room … these schools do it. It’s called a reverse career fair. Students present themselves and employers walk around the room.” 

Craig Farley, dean of Business and Science at BHSU, mentioned that there are some alumni members who help with mock interviews and evaluating resumes to give professional insight to the students. 

 “Being in the construction side of the industry, there’s a lot of different ways I can go on this but, immediate needs — we’re looking for skilled workers,” Business Development Leader at Ainsworth-Benning, Robert Morcom said. “Ainsworth-Benning has been around 65 years or so, but as we’ve progressed, the skilled workers are harder to come by. Especially with 2.8 (percent) unemployment rate in the region, they’re working around from job to job. Being able to have training to move them from labor, to technical, to superintendents, project managers, and be able to tie those skills to what a project manager needs to know.”

Morcom said that nearly everything that Ainsworth-Benning does on the industry side of things involves computers. That technical training needed is very important and is something that the entire region is in need of.

BHSU does offer a certificate for advanced project management that includes a variety of online courses and simulation courses that are projected to be completed in a year.  

Samuel Kerr, former provost, discussed a better use of surveys for the students, staff, and business leaders to complete more often would be a benefit to the school.

“I remember when I was in academia, there was a survey that comes out from chief academic officers every year, and maybe seven, eight years, ago,” Kerr said. “The findings were, ‘what do provosts or chief academic officers … think we’re actually teaching what industry and business needs?’ And then the other survey … ‘what do business and industry think on how we’re doing on teaching.’”

Kerr said that generally, the provosts would think they were doing a great job of teaching what needs to be taught, while the business and industry leaders would think that the educators are not teaching the skills that are needed for the workforce.

To bridge the gap between educators and the workforce, the right skills need to be taught and some of the general education courses may not be necessary to all individuals. 

“Sometimes we need to look at our curriculum and say, ‘maybe we ought not to spend time.’ In some programs, do we really need to teach college algebra?” Kerr said. He mentioned that in some instances, logic is more important. So for students going to law school, for example, will have grounded themselves much better in learning logic courses rather than mathematics.

Internships are another example of a process that can prepare and ready both employers and prospective employees, so both can gain insight of what is expected from each other. 

“We will work harder on the internship part. I mean, Hans (Nelson) is kind of carrying the ball on that right now, but I do think that’s part of what the feedback we get, is BH is sometimes hard to penetrate. It’s hard to know where to go,” Nichols said.

It is a challenge for employers to go out on campus and attain an intern if they are seeking one. Typically, students will ask their advisors on campus on a possible internship opportunity that is relatable to their major of study. Many majors require students to endure a certain number of internship credit hours to graduate. Additional credit hours past the required amount can be gained to go towards your overall number of credits needed to graduate.

“I think it’s an education thing, too, to define with businesses what an internship means,” Nelson said. 

Nelson said he has fielded more and more calls lately, since the university has designated him as the coordinator of internships.

“Each college has what’s called a recruitment intention specialist, and they were kind of helping fuel that. Because they’re knowledgeable about their whole college and helping assist with those internship things,” Nelson said. “But what I’ve found so quickly, when I’m on the phone call, kind of that, ‘oh, you want to have an intern, OK, can you kind of tell me what are you looking for?’ ‘Well, I need somebody to just answer some phone calls and you know, be kind of an assistant to me.” 

Nelson stated that some of the internship inquiries being made by employers should call a part-time job what it is, because there are also students seeking part-time jobs rather than just internships.

“But, what happens so often with internship, is the students, if they want to get it for credit, it needs to align within their degree area. In order for them to have it signed off to get credit within it, and then it leads into the conversation ‘OK so you want to do an internship, is your business preparing ready for the mentorship style, and working closely with them and giving them those skills in their practices and kinda going back and forth and really helping them along with the experience rather than just saying ‘here’s your to-do list, we’ll talk with you at the end of the month.”

Nelson said that employers such as Daktronics and Sanford Health as examples of incredible internship programs, which is due in part to those companies having program coordinators that work with interns.

“All of their internship openings, aren’t just jobs to throw out there. They’re all jobs where there will be an opening in that job once they’re done with the internship. So they go in, and they do the whole training, and it’s part of a process and they work with their supervisors and they go back and forth and then after that … they either have a job opportunity waiting for them. But it’s a very robust system, almost like taking a college class. And so I always ask businesses, ‘do you have an intern program established or do you just need an assistant?’”

Nelson said he gives businesses expectations and his frustration with the BHSU internship system is that there are three different internship manuals with each manual having different expectations per each degree. 

If a business wants to bring in a graphic design intern, and an accounting intern, the employer must abide by two separate sets of rules for two students, which becomes to be a burden and too much work. 

Other suggestions for finding proper interns, is for the teachers to provide ratings on the students, as well as students placing ratings on the place where the internship took place.

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