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TALENT FOR THE HEARTLAND: How the University of Cincinnati is leveraging speed, agility and needs-based problem solving to solve the Midwest’s talent crisis

By Jessica Gates, Director, Strategic Content at Cincinnati Innovation District

The University of Cincinnati is a finalist for the 2021 IEP Talent Award

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While some cities across the country are thriving, others are growing stagnant. One reason for this rises above- people. Talented people are leaving Midwest cities and heading to opportunities on the coasts. We are addressing this loss of skilled talent to solve this problem for the future of the heartland.

In 2017 the University of Cincinnati (UC) took a bold step in moving the institution from an expertise-first approach to a needs-based economic-engagement strategy. Our vision focuses on human capital as the most powerful force to drive innovation and economic prosperity. We built the Cincinnati Innovation District (CID) to address this. In the process we recognized that we were not alone and that numerous other non-coastal cities were facing this same challenge. We expanded our vision to be a model for other cities and guide a path to innovation and economic prosperity for heartland cities.

In a year of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent nationwide shut down, the CID defied the odds and saw significant success, including signing major new partnerships ranging from Microsoft to Great American Insurance Group, increasing startups by >1000%, and igniting the creation of >600,000 sq. ft. of new space which will open in summer 2022. Our vision is now reality, with industry-engagement practices and programming that are already being replicated state-wide.

At the center of our innovation and economic prosperity strategy has been talent generation and connection, with an emphasis on digitally-skilled talent. Our strength is listening to our partner needs and curating connections to the talent they need to take their innovations to market. Listening and learning from our industry partners has led to a weekly cadence of talent connections spanning student talent, industry-to-industry, startups and entrepreneurs, and researchers. We also created “CID Digital,” a series of virtual platforms for talent connection which allows our programming to be performed digitally or hybrid digital/in-person. We have increased our pursuit of national/global industry partners, most recently with Microsoft who strengthens our entire CID ecosystem through B2B connections and digital fluency programming for all 46,000+ students at the University of Cincinnati. Our impact multiplies in the region through partnerships with 5 other regional universities (Northern Kentucky, Xavier, Dayton, Wright State, and Cincinnati State) which brings our total student talent connection capacity to ~150,000 students.

Our industry partners have expressed an urgent need to dramatically increase the quantity and quality of digitally-skilled talent for our region. In 2020, UC and Microsoft initiated a strategic agreement to develop and attract tech talent in the region. The UC-Microsoft partnership has multiple offerings: support for an early college IT program targeting high school and continuing education students; curriculum development in computer science; and the development of technical certification programs in cloud, data, and AI. We have also created new digital platforms including the “CID/Kroger Tech Connect” program with our partner the Kroger Company. This initiative provides a platform for experts from across Kroger lines of business to engage with UC students, resulting in conversion rates to co-op job applications exceeding 60% – a rate that far exceeds the impact of traditional career fairs or job posting boards.

UC pioneered the co-op program over 100 years ago, and the launch of the Cincinnati Innovation District pushes forward into new frontiers in connecting theory and practice for our students. UC is the lead institution on a $12M U.S. Department of Labor funded apprenticeship program. The “NEXT Apprenticeship” program is focused on providing training/upskilling/reskilling in the areas of informatics and computing for current students and mid-career professionals and provides paid apprenticeship opportunities and state and national certifications. With a program goal of serving 6,700+ students over four years, UC served 1,965 through December 2020, in just the first 18 months of the program.

We recognize that there is a fierce industrial competition for talent and that satisfying that need requires universities to ignite talent development both before and after college. A strategic partnership with our Cincinnati Public School system supports readiness, creates access, and fosters success for students by aligning and co-designing programs and services to facilitate a more robust, system-wide ecosystem of support with the student at the center. At the other end of the spectrum is reskilling adults seeking digital fluency. Kable Academy offers classes for coding, web development and cybersecurity technology in partnership with Cincinnati Bell, preparing participants to accelerate their careers and transform their lives by acquiring job-ready technical skills.

Powered by the University of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Innovation District’s mission is to become a globally recognized talent hub and lead a transformational movement. The combination of industry engagement, unique experiential platforms and accessible research expertise will become a model nationwide.

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