What Industry Wants From Higher Ed: It Will Surprise You

By Barry Waldman

In the early 2000s, in response to industry needs across the Lowcountry, the College of Charleston established a School of Professional Studies, focused on courses lacking in the Lowcountry but critical to businesses across the state.

That degree has been absorbed into the business school as the need for a new kind of employee grows in this age of digitization and global business.

Earlier this year, College of Charleston president Andrew Hsu re-established the link between the school and the manufacturing sector by appointing former BMW South Carolina CEO Knudt Flor to a new advisory role at the College. As senior vice president for innovation and industry engagement, Flor is charged with guiding the creation of new academic programs that serve both employers and prospective students.

So, what does the burgeoning manufacturing sector in the Lowcountry and across the state need? More experts in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and information technology?

Well, yes and no.

Sure, those are critical skills for modern business, and College of Charleston and The Citadel have recently teamed up to establish a new graduate certificate in cybersecurity. Flor would like to see local universities provide courses on artificial intelligence in manufacturing as well.

But more fundamental, he says, is something else.

A broad, liberal arts background suffused in emotional, spiritual and cultural intelligence.

“Engineers of the future will be working in global teams. Liberal arts makes citizens of the world,” he said. 

Regardless of the industry, businesses are about people building relationships across national, cultural and linguistic borders. While educating more engineers who can design and develop processes, higher education must also produce well-rounded individuals who can empathize, transcend cultural differences and speak multiple languages. Flor suggests German for the automotive business, French for the chemical business, and Mandarin for anyone entering a global enterprise.

Angus Cruickshank, the Body Shop Central Maintenance manager at BMW, is looking for engineers who can read a balance sheet and possess presentation and negotiation skills. His high school son is taking a theater course, with his encouragement, because it will improve his ability to speak to a room.

“Our co-op students do a presentation in front of senior leadership teams. The first thing they comment on is the student’s presentation skills, not the content. I don’t think it’s something the educational systems look at, especially in tech disciplines,” he said.

Cruickshank would like to see schools teach STEM with a side of business and liberal arts, so prospective hires can handle the technical requirements and the inter-personal aspects of the job.

This may be a matter of national security as the U.S. attempts to re-industrialize and manufacture the components that power phones, electric cars, solar panels and other products critical to our future.

Employers recognize the power of graduate education to their employees, says Flor. “It is always valuable to hear about employees going back to school. Education is a lifelong learning process. When we finish our education, our learning continues. We always encourage everyone to take the next steps.”