How It's Done: Workforce Development Partnerships

Maryville University President Mark Lombardi talks with students on campus
(Image credit: Maryville University)

Dr. Mark Lombardi is president of Maryville University, a private college in St. Louis with a reputation for innovative, hands-on, student-focused learning. Among its many accolades, the college was named as the fourth fastest-growing university in 2017 by the Chronicle of Higher Education and also ranked in the top 10 percent of all major universities in the U.S. for the economic value of its academic degrees by nonprofit firm Educate to Career.

T&L spoke with Lombardi about how his college has transformed workforce development.

T&L: What is your perspective on higher ed and workforce development?

Lombardi: Universities have always focused on students obtaining a degree. At Maryville, we focus on those essential areas but are moving into ‘skilling up’ the existing workforce, whether in data analytics, healthcare, or cybersecurity. It’s not necessarily about a degree, but a degree could be in the offing.

How does this work?

We sit down with a company and ask: "What is your biggest workforce challenge right now?" We then work with that company to co-design online or blended programs to meet that need. So many workers were hired to do a job and the job changes and their skill sets fall behind. It’s an empowerment initiative to keep workforces current, to help companies not have to let go and recruit new people, and to help the workers see their jobs and careers as a series of skill development.

I need to emphasize that it's not technical training. We’re working in the fields in which we already have expertise and degree programs. 

The key—and I can’t emphasize this enough—is that it’s not a fully prepackaged certificate. We sit down and ask what the company needs and design it together. The employees have a much higher level of vested interest.

Michael Zlaket, president and CEO of Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., speaks to Rawlings Sports Business Management students at Maryville University.

Michael Zlaket, president and CEO of Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., speaks to Rawlings Sports Business Management students at Maryville University.  (Image credit: Maryville University)

How to kickstart your own workforce development program

What kind of feedback are you getting?

Companies have discovered that you have to invest in your people and their professional growth and development. The old model of tuition reimbursement wasn’t targeted. Employees would pursue what they wanted, earn a degree, and leave. This program is more of an investment in the people. It has great longevity and long-term benefits.

The other part that’s exciting is that these skills development certificate programs are stackable down the line toward a degree if the employee wants. Down the road, people can take this experience and apply it toward a degree at Maryville or elsewhere. It’s flipping the model a little bit. 

Who pays for the classes?

We don’t charge the employees—the company will buy 400 subscriptions for 400 people. It’s a new and different model, and the companies get to put their stamp on it to meet their particular goals. Even better, we can replicate the courses over and over again.  

Can you describe a program or two?

We’re in the middle of a program for Keeley Companies, which has six different companies spread around the Midwest. They wanted to develop a program for their mid-level employees in all six companies that would help them identify who could move up in the company. We’ve designed a 16-week program for over 200 people that includes experiential exercises and projects designed to recognize leadership potential.

We’ve also begun working with Commerce Bank on a project for their IT department that focuses on IT skills development.

What's next?

We’re in the early stages but the response has been great. This can become a very important local and regional economic imperative to help workforces keep workers here and attract local business. Our goal is to replicate this in St. Louis, regionally, and eventually nationally. 

According to Dr. Mark Lombardi:

1. Focus on student outcomes

As universities explore new corporate partnerships, student outcomes must guide every action taken. If graduates don't land jobs or employers say that graduates aren’t prepared for those jobs, we’ve failed. The more we equip students to enter a challenging work environment, the more choices they’ll have beyond graduation. 

2. Shut up and listen

Universities need to stop telling corporations about how great their graduates are and start listening to what corporate partners need from graduates. Corporate partners often tell us that they don’t care about GPAs. They need graduates who are ready to tackle work on day one. Providing meaningful skills and preparation for day-one readiness is why we built experiential learning into the Maryville curriculum. 

3. Involve corporate partners in curriculum from the beginning

To help students compete in the workforce, universities must work closely with corporations to tailor the education they provide to the skills graduates actually need. 

One example is our Rawlings Sport Business Management program. Rawlings, the equipment manufacturer, was heavily involved in creating the program and developing the original curricula for product development and sports marketing courses. The Rawlings program’s advisory council has representatives from Stadia Ventures and other sports entities. Council members meet regularly with Jason Williams, Maryville’s director of sport business management, to help ensure that the program’s curriculum and the skills attained by students are relevant in the changing sports market.