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July 7, 2013

THEODORA KALIKOW: Internships one way to teach skills employers need workers to have

Theodora J. Kalikow

Let's remind ourselves what education is for. American education's long-term purposes focus on citizenship, transmitting culture and learning to the next generation, and enabling individuals to meet their human potential.

Today, I'm going to focus on some specific purposes of education. What do employers actually want? What do businesses, industry and nonprofits need people to be able to do? Particularly here in Maine, what should we be paying attention to?

I read surveys of employers who, when asked about skills they want college graduates to have, don't respond with technical knowledge, mastery of a field or anything like that. Most want: good communication skills (reading, writing, speaking, persuading), ability to work with colleagues, innovation and creativity, problem-solving, ethical standards, curiosity, persistence and the ability to learn new things.

Of course, majors do matter, especially in science, technology and engineering fields, or other technical professions with state-mandated requirements, such as health care, law or education. The Department of Labor reports on skills needed in Maine focus on this level.

Perhaps the most important things that the completion of any major brings, however, are a depth of experience, an appreciation of the relevant community of practice, and finally, a knowledge born of the interplay between theory, experience and practice: the learnings of the head, the heart and the hand.

Developing these learnings takes more than completing a specified number of classroom hours. A large body of research and practice from the last 30 years or so tells us quite definitively that internships, problem-based learning, clinical practice or other models where students engage in real-world problem-solving, in real places with real companies and community institutions, all enhance the quality and quantity of what students learn and are able to do.

Active learning often gives students insights into careers that they did not even know existed. That's one of the things that Maine students need most -- knowledge about the wide range of possibilities there are for employment right here in Maine.

Now for a little shift in focus. Maybe four years ago, the Portland Regional Chamber started Propel, an affiliated group dedicated to enriching Portland by "connecting and developing young professionals."

This group has been wildly successful, sponsoring monthly networking events with great speakers and large numbers in attendance. Propel is a happening place for young professionals to meet and exchange ideas and do all the things a vibrant business and civic community should be doing to grow and develop.

When I was still at University of Maine at Farmington, the university was one of the original sponsors, and for the last three years the University of Southern Maine has been the lead sponsor. Since I came to USM last year, I also have been a member of the Chamber's board of directors.

In that capacity, last month I attended Propel's annual "entreverge" award party, where the group announces its top five awards for innovation in business start-ups. There were several hundred folks there, great food and drink, and lots of loud music perfect for people and their under-40 ears.

The award-winners were in the areas of local food, recycling, alternative energy, and publicity and event planning. Sounds like a big chunk of the new Maine economy!

So what's the connection? I wandered around and talked to a bunch of these youngsters, asking them, "What are you doing, and why are you here?"

No surprises here. They always wanted to live in Maine. They grew up here, and they always wanted to come back. It was time to raise a family, and they wanted to do it in a place where they could live the life they imagined. Their spouse got transferred, and they needed to invent a job for themselves. They wanted to follow their dream in a compact but vibrant community where they could make a difference.

And what skills did they use to create their award-winning enterprises? These young professionals all drew upon imagination, innovation, connections with people and teams, and all the rest of that most-wanted skills list. They had majored in things like political science, law, English, engineering or education. Many had one or two careers already, and all reported working hard to succeed. They had ideas that might seem off the wall to members of the older generation, such as me, but using those key skills, plus the knowledge they have gained through early career and college, they are making new companies work.

Right here in Maine. The connections are right under our noses.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at kalikow@usm.maine.edu





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