Regents hear arguments for boosting creativity in higher ed

Representatives from the business sector and the university system talked Thursday about the need to cultivate creativity and flexibility at the post-secondary level.

Tom Watson, a vice president at Johnson Controls, said his company is looking for engineers and scientists who understand the economic context of the projects on which they work.

“Every engineer has to be a salesman; they can’t just be sitting in their lab developing an idea,” Watson said at a panel discussion during a UW Board of Regents meeting. “They’ve got to be able to sell that idea to their management, they’ve got to be able to sell it to customers, they’ve got to be able to wrap a business case around it.”

With the retirement of the baby boomer generation, state economist Dennis Winters told the regents Wisconsin’s available labor force is leveling off, requiring an increase in productivity from existing workers. He suggested creativity and the ability to continually respond to new challenges are essential traits in a more productive workforce.

Winters also told the board he was optimistic about the state’s fiscal outlook, despite a historically slow recovery from the last recession.

“Our best guess … is July ’15 … when we’re going to get back even with the 2007 jobs numbers,” he said, citing a return to pre-2007 levels in categories like personal income, retail and auto sales.

According to Winters, a fundamental shift in the economy has caused a drop in demand for unskilled workers. He pointed to job numbers in Dane County, already back to pre-recession levels, saying higher education training is increasingly essential for filling open positions and earning a middle-class income.

“If you want to make more than $30,000 a year in this state … you have to have some kind of post-secondary education,” Winters said.

Underscoring the role of education, Winters compared the GDPs of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Although they were almost identical in 1997, Winters said Minnesota has outpaced Wisconsin in GDP growth because Minnesota has higher educational attainment.

“There’s a correlation between educational attainment and GDP growth, a positive one,” Winters said. “The more skills you have, the higher wages you make; the more income, the higher the gross domestic product.”

UW-Madison Associate Vice Chancellor of Government and Corporate Affairs Charles Hoslet advocated for the creation of campus advisory boards that include businesses in order to better tailor education to workplace demands

“These boards can serve as an ongoing conduit of information about critical gaps in workforce balance, difficulties in recruiting, and identifying the need for ongoing executive education,” Hoslet said.

— By Samantha Nash