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Setting Higher Education Apart as a Training Provider

By getting out into their local community, higher education institutions can keep themselves in mind as a long-term or short-term training solution for corporations who are looking for learning partners.

The following interview is with Amertah Perman, the Associate Director of Program Development for Professional and Continuing Education at the University of Southern Maine. Perman works collaboratively on the development of professional and continuing education to businesses and community members in Southern Maine. In this interview, she discusses some of the strategies she implements to win training contracts and what colleges and universities need to do to set themselves apart as training and development providers.

1. How can higher education institutions learn what businesses want and need in terms of their employees’ ongoing learning?

First, what business want and need in terms of their employees’ continuing education—you know, really learning what it is that they want—is definitely an ongoing process. It isn’t something where you pick up the phone, you call Company X, ask what they need, develop that and check it off your list. Though every once and a while that might work in the short term, it’s certainly not what learning what they need is all about.

To actually really learn what they need, you have to be in touch not only with the companies and businesses but their industries and the environment where they actually work; the community, the region and the state that you’re actually in. It really requires a prolonged and meaningful engagement at multiple levels.

For us, building strong relationships with industry associations and professional organizations is one way that we do this and one way that we found that a lot of institutions really thrive at being engaged and really having prolonged meaningful engagement at different levels. …Connecting with a professional organization not only helps understand the industry, but it also adds credibility to the programming. It gives an added support network, which you can rely upon, and it gives access to a larger audience. There’s also a lot of potential added value to the sort of engagement for both sides, for not only us as an institution and our programs, but our students and then the associations and their members. …

Going out to find out what’s going on is another way to do this. It sounds simple but it takes a lot of time. It really is incredibly important; if you really want to know what businesses need and where industries are going, you have to go to them. You have to show up and you have to listen. You really have go out to find out. Every continuing education program manager knows that this is a challenge—something you’ve got to do if you want to stay connected—but it’s something that sometimes we don’t safeguard in terms of allowing time for. We’ve been lucky enough to really put some effort behind going to professional association meetings, showing up at the Portland Business Chamber of Commerce events, networking, going to local conferences. It’s not just about rubbing elbows; it’s about listening and being where it is that the conversation is happening. So not only can you participate, but you can start to see who’s out there and get a better sense of what it is that they’re talking about.

A third way to really learn… is to develop a community of practice. This will really bring people together. …It really [creates] an opportunity to come together in a space where you’re not only showing up where they are and networking and listening, but you’re also asking questions and giving them the space. A lot of times we rely on the Chamber of Commerce to hold the event to show up to so we can learn more, which is great—they’re a great resource, they do a wonderful job and we need to be an active part and an active member of what they’re doing—but we can also provide space for them to come and gather and really hear what they’re doing. …

2. What are some strategies that higher education marketing departments can use to keep themselves at the front of mind for local businesses when they’re looking to meet a training need?

In order to really stay “top-of-mind”, you need to be active and present in the community. …

Institutional marketing departments, what they’re going to do and what they can do if you’re really active, is leverage those activities and expand on them in order to promote the programming. In order for them to actually do that, they need to be informed of what it is that we’re up to and how we’re involved in the community. That is not easy, it requires departments and programs to not only do what it is that they do, but to be internally communicative about what they’re doing ahead of time so that people in the marketing department and people who play PR roles can get their ducks in a row and do something with it ahead of time.

It can be as basic as remembering to take a photo of an event so that you can post it on Facebook to be more sharing and communicative of that event. It can be more complex things where you actually plan big marketing press releases, interviews of success stories. Collecting testimonials is a really big thing. It’s really about sharing in that community—communication with marketing—so that they can leverage, and actually have, content to highlight. That’s really important. Connecting the dots between who might want to know what, and when, and why, again it’s very hard. We struggle with this every day between our small groups and between our larger departments and colleges. But it’s something that we really, really need to work on and something that’s ideal in terms of really connecting those dots.

I can’t over-emphasize how important working with open communications and holding a shared identity of the larger institution is. So it’s not always just, “One program does X, Y and Z – let’s talk about it.” It’s that the entire department and the entire university is really behind these initiatives and doing good work so you have a shared identity that marketing can really emphasize in their materials.

In order for marketing to do that kind of job and to do it well, it may need to play a role in creating a healthy flow of internal information-sharing so it can actually get what it needs to promote the programs and help keep everyone on the same page. Again, it often feels like an added task for the individual program rep, or the faculty or staff, and so having marketing involve themselves in creating a system for it is really helpful.

All institutions may [approach] this in different ways depending on the size, but each member of your team—be it the person who answers the phone, the person developing the curriculum or the person going out and meeting the companies—we all share in marketing and selling the program in many ways. We never do the hard sell, but we represent those programs so if we’re on the same page with our story and aware of what’s going on so we act as a cohesive whole, that’s really going to come across to companies and to people who are looking to partner. That’s a very important strategy.

An additional strategy is really knowing your strengths, knowing your story and what it is you’re all about. For us, we’re a public institution; we’re a public resource, a community resource. It’s interesting because our professional communication office…sits physically as a bridge between the community and campus. On one side we have a free parking structure attached to us, and then on the other side of the building we have a skywalk that goes onto campus. … That is a part of who we are and definitely a strength and something that we work to communicate in our marketing pieces is really that identity of where we sit and that we’re really here as a community resource.

In terms of concrete tools that we use in order to market our professional development programs and our corporate training opportunities, we have the active development and use of our own lists. Both mailing lists and email lists. This is something that we’ve grown ourselves and that we continue to work on. We grow it through events, networking and give-aways. Again, we’re a small institution, having a small but highly-effective and engaged list is better in many ways than having a giant list of semi-engaged people. We really work hard as a team to really grow that list. … We do a lot of email, which—no surprise there—is, a really good tool to market to companies, we have monthly announcements catered to our unique audiences, and we have e-newsletters.

We have been developing newsletters for a little while now and improving the way that we utilize them and the content that we put in them. This is an important thing in terms of creating newsletters; it’s not just about pushing your programs or showing what you do—although you definitely want to tell people what you’re doing—it’s also a way to expand the community and to bring added-value to being a part of that community. So sharing instructor-industry insights, showcasing your students’ success stories, talking about opportunities that might appeal to that audience. … Taking the time to create that content is a big effort, especially for a small shop, but it’s an important one that really brings a lot of credibility and added-value to that engagement.

There are a number of tools and strategies higher education institutions can utilize to stay top-of-mind for employers looking for training and development options.

We use Facebook … it’s not just about posting, although you do definitely need to be active; and that’s a huge challenge in and of itself to post regularly. It’s got to be more than that; you need to engage via Facebook. We spend time going on there and “liking” people and sharing things and asking questions and coming up with ways to engage. This is an effort we just starting doing but it’s showing really good results and we have a fairly active community both online and on-site, in the community, so Facebook has been a fun way to connect.

Believe it or not, print! Print is big for us. We don’t print catalogues anymore or anything like that but we do produce printed material and our particular audience here in Southern Maine really likes that. At one point we moved away from it and it didn’t work so well and now we’ve got some really great, well-developed print pieces. They’re a little bit bigger than a postcard and a little bit smaller than a multi-page brochure or magazine, but they cover the basics; what we offer and when, and how to get in touch with us. People like it. A lot of our professional business workers that come in here and take our classes, our adult audience, they like to have something they can stick on their wall, or show their employers, stick on their fridge and that kind of thing to look at and remind them of their goals as they go about their busy lives. Not giving up on print has been an important aspect of our strategy, though we are cautious with it and we do try to make sure that it’s meaningful. Sending out basic print reminders doesn’t seem to be a big hit, but sending something that they can keep and use and that has relevance is definitely important.

3. What three characteristics do you think are most important to get across to an employer looking for a training partner?

Every organization is going to have its own, unique characteristics, specialties and expertise that they’ll want to emphasize when working with companies that are looking for a training partner.

For us, I would say that the first key characteristic for us is that we’re not just a training partner. We’re not a separate school—isolated—or a unit within the university that is siloed. USM’s Professional and Continuing Education exists in partnership with USM’s academic departments and colleges. We offer support services, programming and resources internally within USM and externally to the community. …It sounds funny, but institutions of higher education that offer corporate training have the unique characteristic of being an institution of higher education and not just a consulting firm, or a siloed center for customized training, and we really strive to capitalize on this and capitalize on the opportunities for integration, internally, with the rest of the university as well as externally.

Because of that, we face the challenge that many divisions offering special development opportunities face and that’s the challenge of staying engaged in two very different worlds; the corporate world and the traditional academic world of higher education, and moving in-between them. … It’s something that institutions really want to promote, but luckily for us it’s not one that we face alone. Our university; it’s part of our culture. We have a lot of faculty here in different areas and different pockets that really work hard to develop and grow relationships with local businesses. So it’s not just our branch doing it, and again we’re not separate from those things that are going on. So when people are looking for a training partner, we bring more than just that training that we offer, we bring a whole host of resources and potential opportunities for potential collaboration and partnership.

Second key characteristic, for us, is that we’re problem-solvers. Organizations that offer customized training well, engage business and the community well; really need to be problem solvers. There are two primary ways of being a problem-solver that I think we focus on equally. The first is being a responsive problem-solver. …We want to really emphasize that. [An] example of that is our online bachelor degree program. We have a lot of people in our community that have some college experience but have yet to complete their degrees and these programs… grew out of that. We listened to them and we were responsive and figured out a way to develop programs that met that need. People expressed a need for greater access and more flexibility in schedules so we offer programming year-round; summer, spring, fall, winter, online, on-site, and we partner with other community groups to offer different formats. Being really responsive problem-solvers is important. The second part of being a problem-solver is being proactive, and I think it’s a really important part. We don’t just wait for a company to call and tell us that they have a problem and they’d like us to help them with it. We really pay attention to what’s going on in the state and the region and try to help the community get out in front of it. …

Being a problem-solver in addition to being responsive and proactive really requires being an organization that follows through. At USM, if someone calls and hopefully they reach someone, we’ll help them out, we’re not going to bounce them around. We’re going to work hard at an individual one-to-one basis to solve their problems. If someone calls and they get our voice-message system, we’ll call them back. Again, when you talk to the corporate world that sounds baseline reasonable but I think across lots of educational institutions we struggle with that.

Being a problem-solver, being here as a community resource really means good customer service. It means following through and really helping people out when they call and calling them back and making sure they get what they need. Higher education can be a confusing mess of phone trees and that’s something we work hard to correct and to avoid. All that rigmarole and confusion is not necessary and it really doesn’t fly when you work with corporations and professionals and it’s not going to fly for very much longer for traditional students as well. It’s something that is about the key to being a problem-solver is solving those internal problems and systems, addressing them head-on and really trying to make a difference from the first point of contact to all student representatives—your advisors, your faculty—really making sure people can help people directly and provide that service.

I would say the third characteristic is really integral to all the things I’ve already mentioned; it’s that we’re local. We’re a local, resourceful resource. We live here, we work here, we raise our families here and we’re really in it for the long haul. We bring that level of commitment that follows a long-term community partnership model. We work with local business professionals, industry experts that are vetted through our university to teach our programs and our customized trainings. We rely on the community and we work with the community. … Being in Maine and being part of the Maine community is important to us and I think that can’t be overemphasized. A lot of institutions forget where it is that they’re placed and I think that’s a shame and I think it’s something that’s important when you’re working with companies and businesses—small, medium and large—that you focus on the fact that you’re here and you’re here for the long haul. It’s not just about upping enrollments in your customized training for the next month, it’s about having really long-lasting relationships that are more than just one-off trainings and really being committed to your community is important. …

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about how higher education institutions can get out into the market to win training contracts?

The best thing to take away, really, is that safeguarding systems and really being committed to prolonged engagement, that’s important. I think when people look at numbers and increasing revenues, they sometimes forget that small revenue here and there may lead—a couple of years down the line—to a lot more revenue when you have really trusting partnerships and that’s really the most important part.

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