Developing skills for our innovation economy

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Recently, Gov. Terry Branstad organized the Future Ready Iowa Alliance, chaired by Lieutenant Gov. Kim Reynolds and Dan Houston, CEO of Principal. The focus of the alliance is to address the skills gap in Iowa. The University of Northern Iowa, as a member of the Iowa Campus Compact, is developing unique strategies to fill that gap and to prepare graduates as citizens and professionals for the coming innovation economy.

By 2025, Iowa is expected to add 612,000 jobs to its economy, 68 percent of which will require postsecondary education. Yet there aren’t enough adults with college degrees to fill these jobs. While much of the focus for bridging this gap centers on job training for technical skills, such as coding and data analysis, what we need more than ever are graduates with the core skills to meet workforce and community needs, students who are prepared to create, innovate, and lead change.

The essential skills of the twenty-first century include critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and written and oral communication, and these skills are more important to employers than a student’s major. More recently, surveys have demonstrated that students must not only develop these skills in the classroom, but also apply them in real world settings solving real world problems. Such engaged learning experiences also assist students in developing their curiosity, which leads to lifelong learning and the ability to be adaptable and innovate.

Significantly, the development of these essential skills in applied and engaged settings not only prepares students for professional careers — they also prepare students to meet the public purposes of higher education: to become active and engaged citizens who are invested in their communities and their civic obligations. Instead of pitting career preparation against education for citizenship and democracy, we need to recognize their intrinsic connection. The University of Northern Iowa is working with Iowa Campus Compact to go beyond the lecture hall to help students build these core skills.

One of the more salient engaged learning experiences that students can have is that of an extended service learning project with a nonprofit organization in the community. UNI recently created a summer Service Learning Institute so that faculty members can transform their courses to include a community engaged project. Working with community organizations, students become engaged in the challenges of the “real world” and gain valuable skills in new ways through applying their learning outside of the classroom.

The University of Northern Iowa is committed to expanding these valuable experiences for our students so that they are prepared to innovate, create, and lead change. Students must be prepared for a life that emphasizes their well-being at work, in the community, and at home. Join UNI and Iowa Campus Compact in meeting the civic mission of higher education. Learn more at: iacampuscompact.org/giving-voice.

• Jim Wohlpart is provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Northern Iowa.

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