Ready for the Workforce

by Lisa Sciortino
Photos provided by The University of North Texas

As national corporations and other large companies continue to relocate their headquarters and otherwise set up operations in Frisco and the surrounding area, the need for skilled, educated workers to fill the jobs that result has never been greater. 

The University of North Texas, which earlier this year opened a new campus on Preston Road in Frisco, works closely with those employers (whom it calls “industry partners”) to create curriculums and opportunities designed to assist students successfully enter and navigate the working world while simultaneously helping companies build their local workforces. 
With its status as one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, Frisco “is quite the hub for business and innovation and it becomes more so, I think, with every passing day,” says Dr. Michael McPherson, UNT provost and vice president for academic affairs. “That opens the door for us to enter into some of the best partnerships we can dream of.” 
Among those are established partnerships with companies including Toyota (headquartered in Plano), Baylor Scott & White, Sam’s Club, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and the Dallas Cowboys (both headquartered at The Star in Frisco), and PGA of America, which opened its headquarters here in 2022.
 Other partnerships are with nonprofit organizations including The Samaritan Inn, a McKinney-based homeless program and shelter, Serve Denton, which partners with other nonprofits to make services accessible to those in need, and the Frisco Chamber of Commerce. 
“The ability to sit down with our industry partners really puts us at the forefront of innovation in higher education,” McPherson says. “It allows us to … bridge the gap between industry and academia.”

Business Community Benefits 

UNT works with its industry partners to devise its jobs-focused curriculums. 
“We don’t presume that we know what industries need, let alone particular industries, so we’re constantly approaching them and asking them to sit down with us, (asking), `How can we help you? How can you help us?’ So, it’s very much a collaborative kind of thing,” McPherson explains. 
Typically, McPherson says, UNT students end up tackling “projects that industry partners have designed and worked with us on,” which “tend to be problems that they’re literally trying to solve, and they put our students to work solving” those. 
For example, students previously worked with a Walmart tech hub in Plano on the company’s potential in-store pet care centers. 
In addition, McPherson says, the university is “increasingly building programs on what we call a `co-op model.’ The idea there is that we can, with partnership from these industries, build a curriculum where a student combines classroom theory …  with periods of time when they’re actually working in the industries that we partner with and they get (school) credit for that work that they’re doing.”
 Having a trove of educated and experienced students at the ready is a bonus for companies already doing business in Frisco as well as those that may be considering a move here. 
Gloria Salinas, vice president of the Frisco Economic Development Corporation, says, “Access to qualified talent is at the core of every company’s decision to relocate or scale its operations. UNT’s market-driven curriculum helps us not only keep that talent pipeline full for existing Frisco companies, but the flexibility of UNT’s curriculum is very appealing to companies looking to grow in Frisco because they know the talent they need will be available.”

Communication is Key

As part of UNT’s Project Design and Analysis (PDA) program, students can earn a Bachelor of Science degree in three years while working in small-group, team-based settings alongside faculty members and business professionals to complete a trio of internships, participate in project-based learning and other job-related experiences. 
Dr. Dianne Gravley is director of the PDA program, which is set to graduate its second cohort of students in May. 
 UNT faculty members meet weekly, she says, “to integrate our curriculum around a common industry-sponsored project and discuss concerns and celebrations of our students.” 
Besides having students work on projects, the partners interview students as part of mock job interviews and hire them for internships, among other interactions. “After each one of these touch points with industry partners, we talk with them and ask, `What are you seeing? What is it that you think we need to do differently?’”
No matter the industry, Gravley says, most partners are looking for students that possess so-called “transferable skills” such as good teamwork and communication skills as well as problem-solving, critical-thinking and time-management abilities. 
Communication skills are “always the top thing when you ask, `What are you looking for,’” Gravley says.
With that in mind, she explains, “We focus on, how do we help these students who are 18 years old when they first come into our PDA program … and say, `You need to learn how to be a professional and represent yourself in a way that will benefit your industry partner and it will benefit you.’” 
It is up to students to communicate with the industry partners on their own. “If they have a project … they write the emails, they send the invitations for meetings, they conduct the meetings. They are constantly communicating.” 
The ability to work well as part of a team is another in-demand skill. 
“One industry partner told us it is common that you’ll have a team (and) people will not be pulling in the same direction. “They become very territorial over their own job and they’re wanting to be promoted,” Gravley explains. 
In teaching the curriculum, “We try to eliminate some of the cutthroat approach that may occur in some teams. We work very hard on teamwork and how do we teach and help these students experience that it’s OK to give up a little part of what you’re doing and pull in the strengths of others.”

 Valuable Experiences

Gravley says that because “each industry comes with a set of challenges depending upon what the culture is like for that industry … we do incorporate within our curriculum a lot of cultural context-type of content that (students) cover and we make sure that they have those real-life experiences.”  
When it comes to learning industry-specific skills, Gravley says, “What we are almost always told is that if (students) have a baseline foundational knowledge of data analytics, of design, if they at least know what project management is, (employers) can bring them in and teach them the hard skills.” 
Throughout their program, students present to industry partners and many participate in various business and academic conferences, Gravley says. “They have not a second thought about going in front of industry partners and presenting or discussing the projects and the work that they’re doing.”
By the completion of the program, the majority of students have found job placement.
 Between 90-95 percent of students who graduated last year from UNT’s first PDA cohort were placed in positions. 
“We’re trending the same direction for this next cohort,” Gravley says. “Many of them have already had job offers.” 
She credits the required PDA program internships for “connecting students to industries from the very beginning — knowing what our industry partners expect, being able to bring those experiences back into the classroom and continually building off of that. Our industry partners know our students by the time they graduate.” 
Looking to the future, Gravley says, “These relationships that we’re developing with students and industries will provide that channel for industry partners to be able to say, `Who does our company need to support over the next 10 years,’ and for the students to say, `I already have an overview. I’m already part of the industry.’”
She is confident that UNT’s model will eventually become one followed by other higher-education institutions. 
“Our goal is to be the recognized leader in a multi-disciplinary approach to project-based learning, graduating students who are career-ready with (the) transferrable skills industry partners are looking for.” 
Lisa Sciortino is managing editor of Frisco STYLE Magazine.
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