What industry needs: T-shaped graduates

Company managers are generally satisfied with the technical skills of their new hires. What they truly need, however, are graduates with strong technical skills who also are adept at written and verbal communication, who understand how to get things done in a complex, fast-moving organization, and who can be depended on to interact positively with co-workers, partners, and customers. These traits used to be called “soft” skills, but technology companies seeking a competitive edge increasingly seek employees who embody them.

T-shapeThe Oregon Engineering and Technology Industry Council (ETIC) is taking the lead in a statewide initiative to address the issue of “T-shaped” professionals, a term referring to individuals who have depth of technical knowledge (the vertical stem of the T) paired with skills, such as communication and teamwork, that cross over individual disciplines (the horizontal bar of the T). Such a powerful combination is both highly desired and in short supply in today’s competitive job market and high-pressure workplaces.

The T-shaped issue is a national priority for industry. A recent industry survey conducted by ETIC, an initiative of the Oregon University System, has spurred interest here in Oregon in exploring T- related solutions and best practices across the country. “Universities are now expected to do more to prepare students for the job,” said Laura McKinney, OUS assistant vice chancellor for industry partnerships and ETIC’s executive director. “Companies now expect graduates to be work-ready right at the start.”

ETIC has a $29 million investment fund this biennium to support strategic initiatives in Oregon’s public universities and colleges, and Oregon State receives substantial funding through ETIC. The council is starting to give special priority to grant proposals that promote solutions to the T-shaped challenge. The key is devising solutions that can be integrated into the way universities deliver education. A good start is emphasizing collaborative and hands-on experiences that give students a sense of the workplace.

“Basically, we’re talking about moving away from a content-based curriculum to more of a problem-solving curriculum,” McKinney said. “We have to think about doing things differently and find ways to do more to engage industry inside the educational mission.”

Industry Connect recently spoke with one of the more vocal champions of the T- shaped cause in Oregon: Keith Brown, IBM’s director for strategic university and industry alliances. A veteran of Oregon’s high-tech scene who works out of IBM’s offices in Beaverton, Brown is a board member of both ETIC and the Technology Association of Oregon. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Why make T-shaped skills such a priority?

Being T-shaped means many different things. It means having people skills in terms of program management, process capabilities, and communication, and all are complementary to the core task of designing, developing, delivering, and selling products and services. IBM, for example, is a global company with global teams. The people who tend to be most successful here are the ones who can communicate effectively across a broad set of organizations and also appreciate differences in cultures, languages, and so forth.

What role do universities play in developing work-ready, T-shaped professionals?

Companies hire people for core technical depth. What most organizations then find is that they spend a fair amount of time and effort with recent graduates integrating them into teams, coaching them to be effective in what is rapidly becoming a more team-oriented environment. What we see is an opportunity in the educational system to give students experiences and opportunities where they can develop those skills as part of their academic achievement and come out of the universities better prepared.

So the questions are: How do you balance the tradeoff in curriculum to integrate these other activities in a way that is meaningful to students? How do you leverage the strengths and capabilities of programs across the university in more creative ways? To be more successful, you have to ignore the boundaries between colleges, schools, and departments. If the university is willing and able to integrate in a more open way, students can have more versatile experiences. But it has to be done strategically.

A place like Oregon State with strong programs in so many areas — engineering, business, oceanography, just to name some — has significant opportunities.

What “big-picture” impact does the T-shaped issue have on Oregon?

If we want to increase the competitiveness of U. S. and Oregon students for jobs, this is a critical issue. What is going to help us create momentum and traction for jobs? It’s going to be the ability to integrate new and recent college graduates quickly into business environments so they can demonstrate very quickly their value and their potential. When you consider the competitiveness of our workforce on a global basis, these T-shaped skills can really be a major differentiator.

— Romel Hernandez

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