Echoing the results of a recent survey of the nation's governors, economist Thayne Robson told a Utah State Board of Regents task force this week that the state's higher education system is not responsive to marketplace needs.
"It is nonresponsive. The higher education system generally lags the marketplace by one or two generations," said Robson, director of the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research."Generations?" queried regent Aileen Clyde.
Robson said three possible exceptions are science, technology and medicine. Higher education is responsible for dramatic changes in those areas, he told members of a task force studying the roles and missions of the state's nine colleges and universities.
The nonprofit Education Commission of the States survey found that only 46 percent of governors view publicly funded research universities as "very responsive" or responsive to state needs.
Public four-year institutions such as Weber State University or Southern Utah University fared even worse in the survey. Forty-one percent of governors perceived those institutions as responsive. Yet, 69 percent view community and technical colleges as very responsive to responsive.
By comparison, 48 percent of governors believe private, proprietary schools such as the University of Phoenix are responsive to marketplace needs.
The survey polled 50 governors. Thirty-seven, among them Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, responded.
Utah State University President George H. Emert quarreled with the notion that higher education isn't meeting industry needs.
More than 270 companies recently recruited students at USU.
"I don't buy that the private sector has given up on higher education at all. There certainly are some disenchantments but they haven't given up on us," Emert said.
Dixie College President Robert C. Huddleston cautioned the task force that the private sector has its own problems in determining what kind of training and skills workers need.
"Don't be fooled that those people have their act together. Some of the worst training in the world goes on in the private sector. We don't have a lot to apologize for," he said.
Still, a goodly number of Utah students are majoring in areas where there is little job demand, Robson said.
Employment forecasts prepared by the state Department of Work-force Services suggest a growing demand in the information technology fields and public education. Yet, a preponderance of graduates of the state's four-year institutions earn degrees in communications, sociology and psychology, Robson said.
Jim Jardine, chairman of the U.'s Board of Trustees, said college students, too, have access to employment projections. Yet, they elect to major in disciplines not in great demand in the workplace.
Robson, himself a professor of business at the U., said college department-level dynamics may have more to do with a student's course of study than any other factor.
"What kind of advice and counsel do students get when they show up on a campus and ask `What should I be when I grow up?' The response they get is `Let me tell you about myself. Let me recreate myself through you,' " Robson said.