In the 20th century, when the US was largely based upon a manufacturing economy, American schools provided two educational tracks and career paths for students: higher education and vocational.
Higher education focused on delivering a broad general education to those students who had the aptitude and desire to pursue management or professional careers. Vocational schools provided students with the skills needed by the vast number of industrial manufacturing companies at the time: carpentry, welding, plumbing, electrical, and others.
Today, however, the US – and global- economy has been transformed to be primarily service-based. According to a 2014 Bloomberg Business report, “Worldwide, services account for 70 percent of value added and…that’s true in some developing countries, too.”
The majority of manufacturing jobs that still exist have been shipped outside the US and are unlikely to return – at least not at the scale prior American generations experienced. Many of the skills required for excelling in our service-based economy are not taught in either higher education or in vocational schools.
Higher education must continue to focus on providing students with a solid and broad educational foundation. These subjects are important to learn how to think critically, and understand who we are and how we fit into an ever-increasing global economy.
However, industry is under intense competition to produce more with less. Many companies simply cannot afford or have the time to train recent higher education graduates with job-related skills. And, the needed skills change so rapidly, it would be challenging – impossible – for higher education to keep pace with their curriculum.
Companies are looking for students with skills they can immediately benefit from — engineering, computer science, data analysis, accounting, mathematics, etc. They are specifically not looking for graduates with a general liberal arts degree that cannot add immediate value.
Here are is a painful statistic captured from a recent article in Forbes:
“Only 2% of all companies focus on hiring liberal arts majors”
As a result, many students who graduate with a liberal arts degree are unable to secure employment and can be faced with significant financial debt.
Sadly, the fact is that a liberal arts degree is precisely what fosters critical thinking and the ability to think “outside the box”.
I would argue these are precisely the traits the rest of the world covets when they jealously describe why the US leads the way in entrepreneurship. Other countries seem to easily replicate – some would say “steal” – what we have created; yet few can match the US when it comes to creativity and innovation.
So, last year, I decided I wanted to do something about this dilemma. The hypothesis was as follows, “Could we create a short form program targeting liberal arts students and teach them a skill – or enough of a skill – that they could secure a well-paying, professional job in industry.”
I debated about which skill to focus on but ultimately decided upon Digital Marketing as the first. Why? Well, this is one of the hottest growth areas in industry. There is a shortage of skilled labor — just ask the folks at Marketo. And, it is an area I believed we could train smart people – although not necessarily technical – fairly quickly and impart them with valuable skills in a short period of time.
I elected to do this in Bend, OR — a fantastic, small city in central Oregon known primarily for its outdoor lifestyle – skiing, hiking, cycling, fishing and hunting and microbreweries — delicious but that’s a different story.
Bend is going through a transition – similar to what Boulder, CO went through – with Oregon State University – Cascades building a computer science campus/program there. As a result, Bend is in the beginning stages of transforming itself into a regional technology center.
I have a vacation home in Bend, OR. But, instead of just showing up from time to time and drinking a glass of Scotch while watching the beautiful Cascades out my back window, I wanted to see if I could also help the community. One way to do that is to bring professional jobs into the area. By working closely with OSU-Cascades and other Oregon universities along with local business leaders and representatives, I believed I could help to create a “talent factory” in Bend that over time would attract the tech community and other industries into the area.
That was the genesis of Bend Polytechnic Academy or BendPoly which we established as an Oregon Limited Liability Benefits company or “B Corps“. This is a new type of business entity that exists to do social good – like a non-profit – but also agrees to pay its fair share of taxes.
I began by having conversations with universities throughout Oregon – some which were supportive and others “not so much” – and quickly realized I was largely on my own to put together the program. So, I conscripted a variety of very talented people into donating their time, for which I am eternally grateful, to help me to build the website, create a curriculum, recruit the instructors, generate the instructional materials, and organize the events with the ultimate goal of delivering a high quality, 6 week course on Digital Marketing. And, it had a deadline — it was to start on July 7, 2015.
Oh my god! I quickly realized I was now the CEO of a startup — that I was funding myself. And, unless I wanted it to fail, I had to make sure it all came together…with excellence.
I started with a vision and here are the original words I drafted:
Bend Polytechnic Academy (BendPoly) bridges the vocational gap between higher education and industry. We are the 9th semester.
BendPoly is not a substitute for an undergraduate or graduate degree. Instead, it is augmentative. BendPoly builds upon that foundation and provides practical skills in high demand areas in industry such as: digital marketing, customer success, sales operations and others. These are skills that traditional colleges and universities simply cannot provide.
BendPoly works cooperatively with higher education institutions to ensure its curriculum is complementary to the core curriculums of colleges and universities.
BendPoly is unique in that it includes hands-on mentorship and instruction from industry experts, using market-leading applications, and combines all of this with practical experience on real world projects.
When students graduate from BendPoly, they are prepared to enter the job market with a solid foundation from their investment in an undergraduate or graduate degree coupled with highly marketable skills and experience that are fresh and relevant to industry.
BendPoly doesn’t stop there. It markets its graduates to some of the most innovative companies in the world across industry. As a result, students can be employed immediately upon graduation with a high paying job, in a rewarding career.
Over the next few months, that vision gradually turned into a reality.
First, I was worried that no one would sign up and come – many of the universities were skeptical of my motives and would not give me access to their faculty or students. But, little by little students began to hear about our program — we used social media campaigns and even traditional PR methods such as TV and magazine interviews. By May, we were able to select 16 very bright – and brave – students for our pilot session from a talented applicant pool. Whew!
Second, I was concerned we would not be able to get instructors of the caliber we needed — people with decades of industry expertise who really knew their craft. Fortunately, through some of my contacts and the persuasive skills of our Chief Instructor, Cari Baldwin, we were able to recruit some of the most talented people in industry to be our instructors.
Jon Miller – co-founder of Marketo and now founder and CEO of Engagio kicked off our program. Alden DeSoto, who teaches Google Analytics for Google, taught our course on the same topic! Kevin Nix, one of Siebel Systems’ most successful product execs and now the CEO of Stellar Loyalty, taught the session on customer experience.
We taught concepts but, more importantly – and what is unique about the BendPoly experience – is that we gave the students hands-on training using state-of-the-art application software that industry uses. We taught students how to set up and run Google Analytics reports. We taught them how to use Marketo -set up campaigns, measure results. We gave the students a “starter kit” of the vocational skills they needed to truly become digital marketers.
When they began on day 1, virtually none of the students had any knowledge of concepts such as the “buyer’s journey”, lead nurturing, CPC/CPA/CPM, conversion rates, etc. By the time the student teams presented the outcomes of their real world projects, most were more knowledgeable and conversant in this subject matter than the companies/people whose project they were working on.
For me, it was truly an awesome experience and it proved the original thesis. You can read what our graduates had to say about their experiences right here. But, more importantly, the majority of our graduates – those who were seeking jobs directly out of the program – were able to secure positions in industry based upon their BendPoly experience.
I realize not everyone will want to remain a “digital marketer” — or customer success agent or work in sales operations, skills we can teach in future courses. But, these are legitimate and valuable entry points that will enable bright liberal arts students to secure their first positions in industry. From there, they can move into other roles within a company/organization.
Going forward, we intend to explore different ways we can work with businesses and universities.
For example, we took 2 BendPoly graduates and coupled them with a team of engineers from George Fox University in a year-long internship/capstone project. Working with a local Bend company – PulsedLight – they are now collectively developing the market opportunity and the software for an automated, anti-collision system for drones, using PulsedLight’s revolutionary low power/low weight Lidar board.
I have also had several conversations with the CEO of General Assembly, Jake Schwartz, on how we might partner with them to introduce their great content into our program. I look forward to further discussions with GA in 2016.
Based upon the success of our program, we have now been invited to meet with senior state representatives in Oregon – such as Ron Wyden, US Senator – and others to explain how this program can “fit in and stand out” as a part of an integral component of the higher-education process. I believe what we are doing with BendPoly in Oregon could be replicated across the US in many other cities in cooperation with their local universities and businesses.
This is one way we can bring real innovation to the education sector – without having to rely on government subsidies/taxpayers. This approach, in conjunction with others such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) using EdTech, will help to maximize the talent needed by 21st century industry. And, provide a pathway for our talented liberal arts majors to make significant contributions to our economy immediately out of school.