More than 120 business leaders from across the Quad Cities and throughout the Midwest joined in an Innovation Summit hosted by St. Ambrose University on Thursday, April 7.

The goal of the event was to learn from the people who employ St. Ambrose graduates how future teaching practices and fresh curricular approaches best can prepare SAU students for the next generation of work, according to a university release.

In attendance were representatives of QC-based companies such as Deere & Company, Arconic, Rock Island Arsenal, Modern Woodmen, Lee Enterprises, and Quad City Bank and Trust, as well as regional companies such as Caterpillar in Peoria and Lenovo-Motorola in Chicago. Both local health systems, Genesis and Unity Point-Trinity, participated, as did representatives of multiple local labor associations.

“We are grateful these extremely busy leaders invested a significant portion of their workday to help St. Ambrose University better serve current and prospective students in preparing them for the future of human work,” said Amy Novak, SAU president and Summit moderator. “We will become an agile and innovative St. Ambrose University only in close partnership with the business community.”

Mike Oberhaus, interim CEO and chief strategy officer for the Quad City Chamber, said St. Ambrose’s active engagement of local businesses in shaping new approaches to learning and teaching will serve Chamber members well today and into the future.

Mike Oberhaus is interim CEO for the Quad Cities Chamber.

“Workforce education is vital for our Chamber members’ long-term success,” he said, noting the future-focused input gathered by St. Ambrose is a critical step in ensuring the institution can meet the future. “It can inform how programs iteratively change to better meet the needs and wants of our business community.”

Oberhaus said the exceptional turnout for the Innovation Summit is proof employers understand the essential role higher education can play in helping their businesses keep pace with change.

“The speed with which technology is advancing within multiple sectors of the economy makes it a challenge for businesses to stay abreast and to leverage innovation,” he said.

Oberhaus also noted employees from every generation will benefit from enhanced workforce education.

 “Skillsets will have to evolve throughout an employee’s career. The work will not be stagnant. It will evolve and be different, and they are going to have to continually evolve their skills and experiences to meet those ongoing advancements in the work,” he said.

Summit participants engaged in exercises aimed to help SAU answer such questions as:

  • How do we understand the current and emerging needs of the labor force in the future?
  • How do we equip students for those emerging realities?
  • How do we reshape the models of higher education in collaboration with business to build a stronger, more prepared and dedicated workforce for the future?

“We are entering a new age of work, an age when smart machines and artificial intelligence will drive efficiency and production,” Novak said. “This means the value of the human workforce will lie even more distinctly in the so-called ‘human skills’ — those capacities to clearly communicate, work in teams, assess and analyze complex data, and to think critically and solve problems.

“Through innovation, and a readiness to adapt, we will prepare our graduates to meet the rapidly changing face of human work. But we cannot do this without direction from the employers who can best foresee changes within their work environment and industries. The tremendous response from the business community is gratifying and shows business leaders believe in the power of partnering with a university that is eager to consider and act upon their input,” Novak said.

Laura Ekizian is an SAU alum and president of Quad City Bank & Trust.

Summit co-director and Quad City Bank & Trust president Laura “Divot” Ekizian is a St. Ambrose alumna who immediately recognized the Summit’s value to her business. She said helping graduates understand and share competencies in an interview setting can save precious time for employers as well as employees.

“We have found that it is really hard to identify either human skills or technical skills in an interview setting,” Ekizian said. “So you end up in a position that doesn’t entirely fit your skillset. It’s trial and error, and you can waste five years of someone’s career.

“If students can be taught to name and demonstrate how they learned critical thinking, communication skills, and any of those essential human skills, and explain ways they have used them, we can better understand how they might fit and grow in our organizations.”

Summit participants were strategically grouped to ensure diversity of business size, background, and skills requirements as they worked together to identify business needs that can become critical strategic initiatives in a new strategic direction for St. Ambrose.

Ekizian said businesses of every size can benefit from the Innovation Summit’s forward-thinking vision.

“By bringing 120 business leaders and their perspectives, we are ensuring we have a panoramic view of what the future will require. It intersects with the University’s strategic planning,” she said. “I cannot think of a better way for St. Ambrose to move forward.”

Learn more at www.sau.edu/summit.