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University key to Providing Educated Workforce

Inside Tucson Business
March 18, 2016
Brad Allis

Possessing an educated workforce is vital to a community, but equally important is having employment opportunities for those workers. That is a challenge Tucson and the University of Arizona face. 

Although Arizona public schools are routinely ranked toward the bottom of the nation in funding and other metrics, Tucson’s University of Arizona is a well regarded institution, especially among public universities. Several of the business programs rank in the top-10, including the entrepreneurship program and the school boasts a number of top-50 graduate programs.

Suffice to say, there are plenty of well-qualified graduates, but keeping them in Tucson has been an issue. 

According to Bruce A. Wright, the associate vice president of Tech Parks Arizona, one of the biggest issues is the nature of the economy of Tucson and Pima County. Most business in and around Tucson are either big, institutional employers or the businesses that supply them either directly or indirectly. Wright pointed out that much of the city’s economy is centered around the University of Arizona and public schools, Raytheon, the mines, Fort Huachuca and Davis-Monthan. Not only do they employ a huge amount of the population, but so many local businesses are either vendors or owe the bulk of their business to their employees (or students in the case of the U of A.)

“We need to diversify and expand the economy so we are producing companies whose primary customers are someplace else,” said Wright, who noted that the types of companies who employ the top graduates of the U of A tend to cater to other big companies outside the region. It is not until you get these types of companies coming to Tucson that you can expand the scope of the economy and bring real wealth to the region. 

Unless a graduate desires to work at one of those big institutional employers, they are likely to leave Southern Arizona. The U of A has the No. 7 management information systems program in the nation, but very few of the graduates are looking to stay in Tucson, instead heading to big centers of industry like the Bay Area, Los Angeles or the east coast. 

Marana is one of the fastest growing communities in the state, but Marana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ed Stolmaker said bringing in the right types of companies is the key to keeping younger workers in Arizona. 

“It’s been a challenge for us here,” said Stolmaker. “We get retail businesses, and that is great that we get the sales tax dollars, but we need to have higher paying jobs to be able to have people be able to live in our community. You have to find a balance with the employment that is in our community.”

Like the U of A tech park, Oro Valley has tried to position itself to bring in more tech jobs, especially their innovation park. 

“Businesses need a workforce, a workforce needs a place to go and the synergies that can come from that would set Oro Valley up for decades to come,” said Dave Perry, president/CEO of the Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Perry pointed to things like the improvements to Tangerine Road and joint ventures by the town of Oro Valley and the University of Arizona to bring the doctorate of veterinary medicine program to the town. Oro Valley has also courted ASU as well as high tech and medical firms to the area. 

The university itself has been very active in trying to bring businesses to Tucson that will benefit their graduates. The Tech Parks Arizona has a three-pronged approach. 

The first is getting current students hands-on opportunities while they are still in school with the types of companies that will hire them upon graduation. The second is to give students with ideas and/or products a place to develop them, either by helping them find a company to partner with or helping them get started with their own start-ups. 

The third prong, is the most obvious, attracting companies that want to hire graduates for high paying jobs. 

“We want to keep the best and brightest here in Tucson,” said Wright. “We don’t want to train them and then ship them off to San Francisco or Los Angeles or Chicago. The only way you’re going to do that is to create high-quality employment opportunities.”

The tech park is not alone in those goals. Eileen McGary, the executive director of career services & student engagement at the U of A, said that they are trying to meet the needs of students and not only expose theirs to opportunities in Arizona, but reach out to those businesses and make sure they take notice of the types of students the school is producing. 

“We do that by having a pretty aggressive strategic outreach agenda in Arizona,” said McGary. “There are a couple of things we are doing specific to that initiative. One, we have an institute for career readiness and engagement that reaches out to Arizona employers, both inside and outside of Tucson, to develop internships and to do what we call ‘employer treks,’ which are exposure tours to some key companies and industries in Arizona.”

She also pointed to an internship readiness program, designed to not only place students in internships, but to make sure students are ready to contribute. 

Jobs are not the only factor in keeping young professionals in the region. Giving them other reasons to want to stay in the region is key. The downtown resurgence has attracted a number of younger professionals and Tech Park Arizona has worked with the Vail to develop the area around the tech park. Similarly Marana is in the early stages of developing their Marana Main Street, which they envision becoming a destination for nightlife and entertainment in the region. 

While the University of Arizona is doing a good job producing qualified graduates, undergraduate education is also important.

Curt Woody, the economic development/strategic initiatives manager for Marana, said good schools are one of the most important things prospective businesses look for in a region.

“I would submit to you that a strong educational system is the most important aspect and element of economic development,” said Woody. 

Not only do businesses want strong schools for the employees that will be moving into the area, but they want good schools to help develop a strong workforce. At a recent conference, two site selection committees said education was the top thing they looked for in a region.

“Can they draw from a talented, educated workforce and is there a pipeline to continue that as their businesses continue to grow?” asked Woody. 

Part of the problem is that Arizona has been near the bottom in the nation in school funding for years and that funding has been further reduced by cuts during the recent recession. Proposition 123 that will appear on the November ballot will help the state add money to the school districts and help state officials to settle a five-year lawsuit over school funding. In 2010, traditional K-12 school districts and charter schools charged that the state ignored Proposition 301, which guaranteed school funding adjustments to match inflation, during the Great Recession in 2007. 

“It’s not perfect, but it is the best chance we have,” said Marana High School Economics teacher Anthony Coronado, who added that if the proposition does not pass it could devastate local school districts, which are already having issues attracting enough qualified teachers. 

“A strong education system is critical for small and large businesses in our organization,” said the Marana Chamber of Commerce in a statement. “Businesses need educated workers, from entry level jobs to high-tech positions. Additionally, our business owners and workers want quality schools and educational opportunities for their families. Finally, a key factor for businesses looking to expand or relocate in Arizona is the excellence of our education system.”


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