By Guest Columnist MIKE GERBER, president of Cross Channel Initiatives and former president of the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education
The Metro Atlanta Chamber’s five year strategic plan, Forward Atlanta, places higher education front and center in the effort to make the metro region globally competitive.
For the most part, the focus is on research universities, which makes sense given those institutions’ educational and economic impacts.
But buried in the plan is a reference that requires greater emphasis given the higher ed-business connections the Chamber aspires to create.
This reference is to the “deep and diverse college and university system” found in the metro area.
This “deep and diverse” system should be the core value proposition of the Atlanta higher education brand as the Chamber executes its plan.
Granted, most urban areas are thrilled to have one research university and this region has five (counting those in the Georgia Research Alliance).
But Atlanta has many more higher ed assets that must be tapped in order to build the full range of partnerships that, collectively, are essential in meeting the broad spectrum of business needs in the region.
For example, while the plan suggests collaborative university-business research centers, better commercialization of research arising from university labs, and paths to link universities to new business formation, that’s not what I hear is in immediate demand from business.
What I hear is that businesses are having trouble growing here because they can’t find enough skilled workers coming out of the region’s colleges and universities. I hear: “We have jobs we can’t fill because we can’t find the talent.” This is why, although not in the plan, the Chamber has formed a new workforce council.
Frankly, though, the talent gap will only be partly filled by graduates of Emory University and Georgia Tech. The reasons? Most grads of these schools are top-flight students who can command top dollar in any job anywhere and leave to follow their opportunities. Many more opt to attend graduate or professional schools somewhere else. Others hail from foreign nations and, when they finish their studies, return home because they can’t get visas to stay in America.
Realistically, most of the college grads that fill the job ranks of Atlanta and Georgia companies are coming from places like Kennesaw, Mercer, Southern Poly, Agnes Scott, Brenau, Clayton, Georgia Gwinnett, Georgia Perimeter and SCAD. These and similar institutions are central to Atlanta’s higher ed brand.
Given little mention in the plan are technical colleges. Yet these schools have become highly regarded for their responsiveness and nimbleness in meeting business needs. The technical college system’s Quick Start program, for example, is seen as a national model in delivering training that solves immediate workforce shortages.
So when the Chamber plan suggests marketing Atlanta as a “university town,” I say that’s too narrow a view.
Major research universities should be a core message. After all, they’re multi-billion dollar operations that bring billions more of economic life into the region by attracting research grants, new companies, etc.
But the Atlanta higher ed brand should be bigger.
We’ve got great comprehensive graduate level universities, excellent liberal arts colleges, the largest art and design college in America, a historically black medical school that conducts $25-30 million of bioscience research annually, a specialized institution of applied technology, theology schools that are leaders in their faith traditions, and the finest assembly of historically black colleges and universities found on earth.
Some may question the role liberal arts colleges play in building the economy.
But ask CEO’s what they seek in a college grad and you’ll often hear they want someone with strong critical thinking and problem solving skills, who can communicate well, is able to work in teams and possesses a global perspective. These are the core competencies that come from a liberal arts education.
As for the liberal arts’ brand value, in terms of global recognition Spelman and Morehouse are at least as well known as some of our research institutions. If you find a graduate of one of these colleges in another country, it’s a virtual certainty she or he is a leader in business, government, or civic life.
So kudos to the Metro Atlanta Chamber for identifying higher education as one of the greatest assets available to Atlanta in transforming and growing the region’s economy.
But when it comes to “telling our story,” as the Chamber plan coins it, let’s not be confined to defining ourselves as a “university city or town.”
Atlanta’s brand value lies in its being one of the world’s leading higher ed hubs – a region that boasts a diverse mix of quality colleges and universities that offer an expansive array of programs, research and outreach.
It’s this diverse mix of higher ed assets that is essential to building the future economy of Atlanta as a global business capital.
Mike Gerber is president of Cross Channel Initiatives, which designs and executes strategies that bridge the business, education and civic sectors, leveraging the strengths of each to achieve mutual goals. Our focus is on creating “alliances of the willing” to get things done.