Wanted: Innovative Thinkers for 21st-Century Jobs



“Today’s industries are demanding specific proficiencies and competencies of college graduates. At Rhode Island College, we’re actively engaging in conversations with industry leaders from around the region to ensure that our graduates have the skills they need to be competitive in today’s workforce.” 
 RIC President Frank D. Sánchez

At a Feb. 14 RIC Talk, attended by RIC faculty, administrators and students, William Foulkes, chair of the Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education, outlined what he considered to be critical workplace skills for the 21st century.

He was joined by panelists from the Rhode Island business sector: Jeffrey Lackey, vice president of talent acquisition at CVS Health; Jill Pfitzenmayer, vice president for the Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence at the Rhode Island Foundation; Angelleen Peters-Lewis, senior vice president for patient care services and chief nursing officer at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island; and Stefan Pryor, secretary of commerce for the State of Rhode Island.

William Foulkes

Foulkes earned his M.B.A. at Harvard University and now teaches entrepreneurship and business at the Rhode Island School of Design. In his keynote, he made the case for a practical, liberal arts education, which lays the foundation for an innovative mind:

Through liberal arts, students gain a broad range of knowledge across disciplines, Foulkes said. It also builds some of the hard skills most lacking in today’s workforce: writing proficiency, public speaking and data analysis, as well as soft skills: critical thinking, problem solving, attention to detail and communication. 

“A liberal arts education is the most valuable tool of the future,” said Foulkes.

“Business is a liberal art,” he explained. “To be a good business person you actually have to have a little bit of everything in your head and have the ability to combine those things in new ways.”

The workforce of the 21st century needs innovators with liberal arts backgrounds, he said. Based on core theories of innovative personalities, Foulkes described the innovative mind as: “able to synthesize, collaborate and create; enthusiastic and persistent.”

 

With the explosion of new technology and the massive amounts of data that technology is able to collect, along with the infinite possibilities for its application, “there probably never has been an era so fraught with possibilities,” Foulkes said.

 

Data is “doubling every two years,” he said, resulting in an endless array of possibilities for its use. Industries need innovative thinkers who can synthesize this data and create something new. 

This was reiterated by the panel of experts, moderated by Anna Cano Morales, RIC associate vice president for community, equity and diversity. 

From left, Jeffrey Lackey, vice president of talent acquisition at CVS Health; Jill Pfitzenmayer, vice president for the Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence at the Rhode Island Foundation; Angelleen Peters-Lewis, senior vice president for Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island; and Stefan Pryor, secretary of commerce for the State of Rhode Island.
 

Lackey and Peters-Lewis are at the forefront of the health care industry. Along with teamwork, strong listening skills and the ability to collaborate, they emphasized an innovative mindset as being key in the changing health care system.

“To have a team that is able to innovate, to collaborate across disciplines and to think about how we can do things better, differently and more efficiently is going to be really critical for us in the future,” said Peters-Lewis. “And these skills are the foundation of a liberal arts education.”  

Likewise, innovation was cited as a critical component of the nonprofit industry. “Nonprofits are entrusted to solve some of our most critical social and economic problems and to work with some of our most fragile populations,” Pfitzenmayer said. “Innovative thinkers help us figure out how we can be more effective in our work.” 

Pryor outlined “the ecosystem of innovation” developing in Rhode Island – the Innovation and Design District located in downtown Providence. This district is home to the South Street Landing Project, Johnson & Wales Science and Innovation Center, the Cambridge Innovation Center and Johnson & Johnson, with opportunities for partnerships between higher education institutions and businesses as well as internships for students.

By combining the solid foundation of a liberal arts education with the innovative mindset, Foulkes and this panel say graduates will be primed for the 21st-century workforce.

This RIC Talk was sponsored by Rhode Island College’s School of Management. The headline photo is of an unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) used by RIC Associate Professor of Biology Rebeka Merson and Associate Professor of Anthropology Mary Baker to capture data for scientific research.