August 22, 3013

By Kelli Dugan |

Mobile, Alabama – As Bishop State Community College's new dean of technical education and workforce development, Kathy Thompson has three words for southwest Alabama's economic development community: Connect. Convene. Collaborate.

Thompson, whose career spans more than two decades, joined Bishop State less than one month ago fresh off her stint as executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Workforce Investment Board and will represent the institution on the Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council.

Five minutes with Thompson reveal a passionate commitment to crafting a 21st-century workforce the Mobile area needs to remain competitive, and she told that Bishop State will take a leadership role in cultivating that labor pool by renewing its focus on academic rigor, technical proficiency and employability skills.

Thompson said Bishop State's purpose is to create viable career paths for students; actively engage the business community by assessing and responding to its ever-evolving employment needs; and to take a prominent place at the economic recruitment table.

Of course, her job is not finished until Bishop State students are employed in positions that maximize the skills they have attained, and Thompson's answers to the following five questions illustrate why:

Q: Please be as specific as possible in assessing Bishop State's current technical education and workforce development initiatives as they stand today, and where do you see them five and 10 years from now?

Thomspon: My goal is to ensure we are offering the right types of credentials for employers, so we're in the process of completing an in-house self-assessment of our programs because it serves no one well if they're no longer relevant. Part of that is determining how we utilize our instructors and possibly re-defining what they do. In electronics, for example, do we really need to be focusing the resources we do on computer repair when a new laptop can be purchased for about $300, or should we be focusing more energy on fields such as robotics and cybersecurity?

Moving forward, I want to develop a strategic direction for us with the involvement of business and industry telling us what they need, and I don't look at them as individual employers but as industry sectors because (companies) tend to be more forthcoming in a group setting. I want them to feel as if this is a seamless process.

The Mobile region – through SAWDC and the chamber – has done such a good job of engaging employers, now I can pick up that educational piece, meaning we're creating a product for them: a well-rounded employee with the technical skills they need to come in and help the companies be more successful.

We want to have consistent successes in everything we say we're going to do, meaning we deliver, and I won't accept anything less than that. I've already conveyed my expectations to the staff and raised the bar, and I expect them to not only meet but exceed it on a consistent basis. And I know I have the support of (Bishop State President Dr. James) Lowe in this.

Q: How do you plan to leverage your professional background in public policy, strategic planning and project and program management to achieve these milestones?

Thompson: Public policy is really about understanding what the post-secondary system will allow us to do and being able to be creative within those boundaries, and that is something I excel at. Strategic planning is simply essential to getting where you're going by setting specific and targeted goals to achieve. As for project management, I'm a doer. I tell my staff, 'I'm in it to win it,' and if I say we're going to do something, we accomplish it.

In order to do these things, though, I have to determine the talents my staff brings to the table and make certain I'm using those talents effectively. Part of that is building good morale and creating buy-in to the vision of where we're going.

Once we set this plan in motion and employers see that we're delivering the product – skilled, employable applicants targeted specifically to their needs – we will be on our way to my primary goal: becoming the number one provider of technical education in this region and a model the rest of the state can emulate.

Q: What collaborative relationships would you most like to see Bishop State forge as the programs progress and why? (I'm speaking particularly of the importance of balancing the needs, strengths and weaknesses of public and private stakeholders)

Thompson: My personal motto of 'Connect. Convene. Collaborate.'

Connecting is about extending ourselves and getting to know who the key stakeholders are in the community, and that means we should be working with business and industry and community organizations as well as secondary and post-secondary education.

Convening is about bringing these key stakeholders together for candid, productive discussions about their specific needs and then producing outcomes that meet those needs.

Collaborating isn't just about leading the charge on workforce development but realizing that we can't remain isolated and be successful in that mission. I need to be an active part of economic development, part of which is recruiting new employers. I need to be at the table for that. I need to be at the table when existing employers decide to bring a new product online and need to skill-up incumbent employees or hire new ones.

Q: Where can Bishop State take a leadership role in shaping the career paths of southwest Alabama's future workforce?

Thompson: It's an issue of identifying strengths and capitalizing on them. Enterprise State Community College's presence in Mobile is more focused on aviation, where we're more maritime and industrial maintenance. We should be partners and competitors with them, and there's absolutely no reason we shouldn't steer students to the programs that best suit the career paths that best suit them.

Economic development is about proving to prospects that you have (their needs) covered on air, land and sea. Enterprise State definitely has the air with their aviation programs, but land and sea are our strong suits. We do HVAC, plumbing, welding, drafting and design – and that's all considered maritime – but we're not limited to that. We have a really strong culinary program as well as barbering and cosmetology, and we have a great transportation program through our truck driving school.

I place a high emphasis on creating career pathways for people and not just finding them a job. Coming to Bishop State is the beginning of a career, and it's a journey.

Q: What is the most glaring gap/inefficiency currently facing workforce development initiatives in this area, and how do you personally propose addressing it?

Thompson: I don't think we're connected to the biz community in the way we should be at this point. We are in some areas, but it's not enough.

We need better relationships with the local school systems. We really need to pursue (career technical education) programs at the secondary level that encourage them to come to Bishop State to complete their training. We need a more consistent and reliable transition of those students from secondary to post-secondary programs.

More importantly, we need to really step back and determine what's relevant. Is cabinet making relevant? Based on the (10) students entering that program this fall, no. What about watch repair when most people use the phone in their pocket to tell time.

I'm not suggesting these skills no longer be taught. I'm saying it's our job to reinvent them and modernize them to create and support 21st-century jobs.

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