Skip to content

Q&A: State-level collaboration to meet workforce needs

Zora Mulligan
Zora Mulligan, commencement speech at Missouri State University

Missouri’s Commissioner of Higher Education discusses the need to work together to innovate within the system to better prepare students and workers for the demands of a rapidly changing workforce.

As students, graduates and workers face the challenge of keeping pace with the demands of a rapidly changing workforce, Zora Mulligan, Missouri’s Commissioner of Higher Education, is at the forefront of the state’s efforts to give public colleges and universities greater ability to meet the needs of students and statewide and regional workforce needs.

The Kauffman Foundation’s Director of Engagement, Education, Miles Sandler, interviewed Mulligan to discuss how she has sparked innovation within state agencies, partnering with those in economic development, bringing together corporate executives, educators, community leaders, and state policymakers. They also discussed how her own educational journey was impacted by opportunities for Real World Learning and validating paths to success that do not include a traditional college degree.

Sandler: I noticed, in one of the pieces I read, that your mom went back to school while you were a child. My mom did as well. How does that resonate with you personally?

Mulligan: My mom went back and became a nurse when I was a kid. Much later, when I was in college, my dad got a non-credit certificate in massage therapy, actually, and it was a really transformational thing where he eventually opened his own small business and has had a series of small businesses over the years. For me, that’s a good reminder that there are lots of the different kinds of credentials that have meaning after high school.

I’m unusual in higher-education conversations because higher-ed people often like to talk about benefits that they think are specific to people who graduated from college. They like to talk about higher voter turnout rates, better health rates, increased civic engagements. I grew up in a community where those things were very common even though almost nobody that I grew up with had a college degree. So, I think it’s really important for us in higher education, when we’re talking about indicators that are more closely linked to affluence than to education, to not alienate part of our audience by saying that we think people who have a college degree are better than people who don’t.

Sandler: Do you see in validating alternative pathways – some that do not include a traditional college pathway – often challenges parents’ view on what success looks like for their child?

Mulligan: It’s a really important question, because, when you talk about the possibility that not every kid needs to go to college, flags immediately raise that you’re not talking about your kid, you’re talking about somebody else’s kid. I think that’s often true.

Sandler: Is there anything in your own personal education story that really was real-world learning that helped prepare you for where you’re at today?

Mulligan: I had the tremendous good fortune, when I was in college as a freshman, of getting an on-campus job as the student assistant to the dean of the college, which really meant I was the student assistant to the assistant to the dean of the college. So, I worked for an old-school, all-star secretary for four years of my life in college, and I learned as much, or more, from her about how to succeed at work than I have in any other setting in my entire life.

She was very detail oriented. Any time I see somebody try to fold a letter without a straightedge, I’m like, “Bonnie Wilcox would not have that.” It was tremendously beneficial. It was also pretty forgiving. She had very high standards, but they were flexible about office hours and those kinds of things. It was the absolute best real-world learning experience that I could have had, and it was super fascinating. I enjoyed working with the dean, he was a fantastic person, but I worked with him almost none. I learned everything from his assistant.

Sandler: When you think about your vision for the Department of Higher Education, what is it in five years? What is your ultimate vision?

Mulligan: We work with a board that adopted a big goal, like many states did, of having 60% of their adult population have some kind of post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025. That’s not really flashy enough to be a vision, but that’s the goal that we’re working toward. In terms of a vision, a system in which we have a much broader set of opportunities that we can present to students, and if they’re kids, also to their families and to school counselors, so that people understand the full range of post-secondary opportunities that can prepare them for life and work.

Sandler: How do you operationalize a student-centered mindset when it comes to post-secondary options for Missourians?

Mulligan: We’ve been doing work with colleges and universities for years to adopt more student-centric, or student-friendly, approaches to lots of different kinds of education. Examples of that would be a transfer block that transfers much more easily and transparently from one institution to another. Some other examples are math pathways, which is a shift that allows students to take classes other than Algebra 1, which we know has been a real challenge for people trying to persist. If you think of it from a student perspective, you understand the imperative of getting everybody in a room and figuring it out.

On the workforce side, what the public workforce system is, really, fundamentally about is getting people the training that they need to get more secure jobs or better jobs. It’s not always post-secondary education the way we have thought about it traditionally, but I do think it’s beneficial to us to broaden our thinking to include shorter-term certificates, to things that many people need to have access to in the short term.

Sandler: Do you feel like your department is a catalyst for innovation? How do you create those conditions to be a catalyst?

Mulligan: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve learned a lot from our state-wide leadership initiatives designed to increase student success. Those initiatives will also be useful in our conversations with local workforce development boards and other organizations that are providing workforce development services and training on the ground. On the higher-ed side, there’s been a real focus on performance and bringing in national experts to help local people understand how they might redesign their systems to serve students better.

There is an analogous conversation that we need to launch on the public workforce side. In some ways, a lot of people have scratched their heads about this combination of higher education and workforce development. The local workforce development boards are all governed by local elected officials and local boards, so we don’t directly control them, but we’re united with them, just as we’re united with the public colleges and universities, in a desire to serve better and in a desire to learn more. I’m not going to pretend that it’ll be an easy conversation, but it’s one that I think everyone will be energized by.

The thing that has been the most different about what’s happened in Missouri in the last year is the comprehensive nature of the conversation. It’s unusual to have higher education working together with economic development, but the thing that’s really extraordinary is that we’re also working closely with the Department of Corrections, with the Department of Social Services, and, from my perspective, that’s been the real innovation.

Real World Learning Clouds

Real World Learning

At two Rethink Ed convenings, in 2018 and 2019, the Kauffman Foundation gathered students, educators, community visionaries, and business leaders from around the Kansas City region to discuss how we can reimagine the high school diploma to reflect the skills, abilities, and knowledge that students need to succeed in our changing world.

Learn more