By any measure, Stephen Jordan’s tenure as president of Metro State University of Denver has been eventful. His mission to raise the profile of Denver’s urban university has generated its fair share of critics, some of them competitors, but even they would acknowledge that Metro State is on the ascent, more influential than before.
Jordan’s reputation as an innovator helped land him the top spot at MSU, and our interview last week left no doubt he believes the university is poised to tackle one of higher-ed’s biggest challenges - overcoming a ‘skills-gap’ that continues to bedevil industry.
It’s a black mark for Jordan’s profession: oft-quoted data from McKinsey & Company found 42% of worldwide employers believe recent college graduates are ready for work, while 72% of academic institutions believe graduates are adequately prepared. Disconnect.
Among the casualties? Manufacturing. The common challenge for companies we’ve profiled has been the lack of skilled workers.
Against the backdrop of Metro State’s much-discussed Aerospace, Engineering and Sciences cluster initiative, which promises workforce development, I asked Jordan if higher-ed is doing its part (to address the skills-gap). He’s way ahead of me.
“We’ll all say we’re trying to do that”, he says, acknowledging the numbers and challenges facing manufacturers, in particular. He describes what he sees as the problem.
“We’re pretty typical of most institutions in the way we’re structured. We’re vertically aligned, not very integrated, with schools of letters, arts and sciences, of business, of professionals separated by discipline but also physically.” He points to a map with buildings scattered around the Metro State campus.
“We teach you all the fundamentals of being an engineer, but without any specific clusters in mind. It doesn’t allow you to replicate the kinds of work environment that work actually occurs in today’s workplace.
“What we’re starting to say is if we’re going to be effective in workforce preparation, we need to begin breaking down those vertical alignments and thinking about how we align departments around industry clusters.”
Metro State has embraced this approach with its acclaimed hotel and hospitality-learning center. “We have four components - hotel, restaurant, events and tourism management – integrated in the program in a facility around that concept.”
But it’s the AES cluster initiative at MSU that holds promise for manufacturing, an idea he says was inspired in part by a visit to Washington D.C.
“I had an opportunity to meet at the White House with the individual who was leading the President’s effort to create new manufacturing initiatives, around industry clusters they’d identified. One they identified was the aerospace industry cluster. I started thinking about what I could bring together at the university, realizing we had industry here – in fact the second largest aerospace workforce in the country.” The Obama team liked the public/private approach.
Jordan emphasizes the workforce piece. “At its core it’s a partnership of institutions and the private sector - preferably an array of institutions. It’s not a research agenda - it’s a manpower development agenda. It’s about how we’re going to manufacture this stuff, and who’s going to do it.”
MSU leadership was initially skeptical. Workforce development at this level is often not viewed as the domain of universities. “Even here, when I started talking to my institutional leadership, understandably their response was, ‘that’s what the community colleges do; it’s smoke-stack stuff.’ But it’s different today. My guess is that this ‘misunderstanding’ is not unique to our university; it’s a fairly widespread misconception.”
Jordan’s faculty is now onboard. As a practical matter, the idea of pulling disparate disciplines together to advance an industry cluster has energized department like physics, the science that underpins aerospace aviation. “We came back and I told them, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea how we can create a very unique focus around advanced manufacturing. We’ll ask those doing it what they need.’ Our people have rallied around the opportunity.”
Industry is supportive, but must be for the project to come to fruition. MSU plans to build what Lockheed Martin also calls the Aerospace Advanced Manufacturing Building, a $40-50 million dollar facility. Industry will pick up a third of the tab. Jordan sees them as a full partner. “There’s no way to deliver an integrated curriculum, or mimic the kind of space people would actually be manufacturing in without their involvement. So we asked them ‘what are the hard skills and soft skills you need?' That’s how we came up with the notion of bringing aviation and aerospace together.”
It can begin to sound like Jordan sees opportunity in disciplines favored by his colleagues in Boulder, a place he spent time and who’ve pushed back on some of Metro State’s ambitions. But Jordan sees MSU’s purview as unique.
“Our role is about workforce. It’s such a perfect fit for our university. We’re not a research institution. We’re here to create a workforce. Our student is a very different student that goes to CU or CSU. And the neat thing about it for Colorado is that we’re creating a full array of workforce: the Martin Marietta’s are still going to need the CU engineers to design those systems.”
In the end it’s hard to argue with Jordan’s energy - and vision for Metro State.
“My view is that urban institutions are the new generation of the democratization of education, that in urban America today, faculty and students will engage in problem solving, rethinking the issues of the day to the benefit of the economy of the urban area. We laid out of that vision early on, that we’re going to become the premier ‘urban land-grant’ institution in America today.”
His optimism is a sentiment that Colorado industry shares. They believe they’re capable of great things. Stephen Jordan and Metro State may help them get here.
Bart Taylor is founder and publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.