Aligning Academic Programs and Student Skills with Workforce Needs

Adam Adair

Vice Chancellor for Finance & Administration, Arkansas State University-Newport

Arkansas State University-Newport has earned a reputation for being innovative and flexible in serving students, working with industry leaders to ensure that its curriculum aligns with the evolving needs of the modern workforce. This collaboration drives the development of niche programs in response to industry demand and enables its graduates to aquire the skills they need to gain employment in rewarding careers.

Campus Management spoke with ASU-Newport’s Vice Chancellor for Finance & Administration, Adam Adair, about the challenge of aligning and changing academic programs and training as workforce needs evolve.

What is the mission of ASU-Newport and the constituencies you serve?

Adair: As a community college, we have responsibilities to our community; including its high schools and local workforce, and adults who did not graduate high school. We’re also an open admissions institution, so we serve a wide range of under-represented populations, from first-generation to economically disadvantaged students. These students many times were not as academically successful in high school as their peers. At ASUN, we also serve our community’s prison population with education and training and were chosen by the Department of Education to participate in a pilot program to award Pell grants to incarcerated individuals.

We want to ensure that they all have the skills they need to be employed in rewarding jobs, so they can become great contributors to their communities and families. It’s a comprehensive community minded mission. We are also trying to partner with economic development authorities to recruit companies to our service areas, so we engage with various companies and industries to align our programs with workforce needs.

How do you go about gaining data and insight on workforce needs?

Adair: It starts at the very top and continues throughout the entire college. Our chancellor sits on the local economic development commission board. That allows her to know what we can do as a university to support existing and incoming industries. We also have a cabinet-level position dedicated to continuous outreach to cultivate and enhance economic development. The vice chancellor for economic and workforce development meets with industry leaders in our communities to find out what their struggles and pain points are, such as the jobs they can’t fill.

For each of our technical programs, we have an advisory body made up of industry leaders in the different program areas. For example, an advisory committee for our advanced manufacturing program include key leaders from major manufacturing companies, as well as faculty members and academic leadership.

We also encourage our faculty and staff to participate in community events, to be on different community boards like the local Chamber of Commerce in our different communities. This enables us to stay plugged in to workforce needs as businesses evolve. We use all of these data points to either enhance our existing programs or expand into additional degree and certificate offerings to support the local economy.

So you add or modify programs based on this feedback?

Adair: Yes, but in some cases, it’s also about identifying programs that are no longer as relevant to students or the workforce. For example, we saw demand drop off for a once thriving telecommunications program, so we made the tough decision to discontinue that program and moved in a different direction to expand into programs that were more relevant to our service area. We’re always trying to figure out what the needs are for both the current and future workforce. We don’t want to put students through programs where they can’t go out and get jobs after completion.

How does technology play a role in being responsive to workforce needs?

Adair: It ties back to our mission of meeting students and communities where they are. To deliver academics and training on their terms, the student information system needs to be flexible. One reason we had to replace our legacy system was that it was built for an outdated academic model. ASU-Newport students take classes on campus and online. They earn training certificates as well as degrees, which means training hours need to be tracked. They also take advantage of flex terms that start at various times throughout the year, which requires more nimble financial aid processing.

This is difficult to accomplish within systems built around traditional terms. With a flexible platform, we can be more responsive and stand up programs (that maybe many of our competitors can’t) in both credit and non-credit courses. CRM also plays an important role for us in terms of engaging students, personalizing communications, and getting them on the same page with employer expectations.

Do you use any workforce analytics tools?

Adair: We are looking closely at the latest workforce analytics tools to gain additional insight beyond what we can gather locally. Occupation Insight, for example, takes in data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other workforce data, and can be used as an academic planning and forecasting tool. Both staff and students can use the tool to more closely align academic programs and acquired skills with future workforce needs, and do it earlier in the student lifecycle, as they are planning their programs and registering for classes.

How has career placement improved since implementing these workforce-centric processes, strategies, and technology?

Adair: In the end, we look to technology to help us meet student expectations. If we can give them that Amazon experience, the constant communication, the quick follow-up and the follow through, we stand a better chance of getting them to the finish line and placed in rewarding careers. If we can adapt and harness that, we’ll have a competitive advantage over institutions that are not adapting and moving more toward this model.

Adam Adair, CFO, Arkansas State University-Newport

About Adam Adair

As Vice Chancellor for Finance & Administration at Arkansas State University-Newport, Mr. Adair oversees fiscal operations, physical plant, human resources, payroll, purchasing, grants management, auxiliary operations, and risk management. Prior to joining ASU-Newport, Mr. Adair spent four years as Controller at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville and an additional six years in private industry finance.

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