Monica Villalobos, Shelley Watson, Julie Engel

Moving the needle on educational attainment is vital to Arizona businesses. Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce. Equity in education, school to career pathways, and upskilling and retraining prepare businesses and individuals for future prosperity and success. We asked some Arizona business leaders to share their thoughts on today’s education landscape.

Monica Villalobos is President & CEO of Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Shelley Watson is Vice President of Southern Arizona Leadership Council and serves on the Achieve60Az board of directors.

Julie Engel is President & CEO – Chief Economic Architect of Greater Yuma EDC.

What are the main challenges educators in your community are facing as a result of COVID-19? How is your community managing those challenges?

Monica Villalobos: One of the biggest issues has been lack of access to technology hardware and internet. So many children of color don’t have the equipment necessary to continue their education online. TheArizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is working with the Black Chamber, the Asian Chamber, and the American Indian Chamber to collect hardware donations to help our students of color and ensure all students have internet access. 

Shelley Watson: The only thing that all of us really know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure when it comes to COVID. Educators are concerned about not only their health, but the health of their students and of students’ families. They’re grappling with all the changing guidance, and also finding ways to clearly communicate an uncertain path forward with families.

Julia Engel: The biggest issue has been technology and the lack of broadband access. Rural teachers and students are inadequately served and can’t connect to each other. Navigating all of this has been very challenging. We don’t have the capacity to warrant investment by the carriers, so we don’t have good service.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities? How does the business community support new ways to address educational inequities and challenges moving forward? 

Monica Villalobos: Our entire perspective needs to shift to helping K-12, especially students of color. As we find solutions for teaching and learning during the pandemic, many of those options simply are not available to communities of color. Solutions for the majority are not always solutions for minority groups. Business owners need to look at K-12 as a talent pipeline and invest as part of the succession plan for their future workforce. 

Shelley Watson: There are inequities around access to technology devices and the internet. Schools that were already pretty cash-strapped now have to purchase things like PPE and extra sanitation services. At Southern Arizona Leadership Council, our member businesses are engaged at the local level. For example, Cox Communications has opened up 750 hotspots in Tucson, and is in the process of providing free home equipment to people in the community while other members have been providing PPE for schools. 

Julie Engel: This digital access gap is just one more disadvantage that our community has to deal with, through no fault of their own. The business community is suffering too, as their internet service isn’t any better. Solving this problem is going to require a partnership between the public and private sectors, and more government support.

How can high schools and postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently for work given a recession? What effect will this recession have on career choices for the Classes of 2020 and 2021?

Monica Villalobos: High schools and postsecondary institutions are helping current students by providing vocational options. I’m really encouraged by the work that Phoenix Union High School District is doing, particularly around the Academies at South Mountain High School. Students can earn a medical assistant certificate or apprentice as an engineer and then earn a livable wage while they go to school. The business community needs to invest in vocational opportunities, whether it’s something like the Academies at South Mountain, apprenticeships, or internships. 

Shelley Watson: More than ever, high schools and postsecondary institutions are going to have to engage with industry and find out what’s needed. They need to really keep their pulse on what the current skills are in industry and directly teach those skills. There can’t be a disconnect, because technology is moving too fast now. Jobs of the future are going to look very different than they do now.

Julie Engel: Schools are definitely trying to institute pathways that are pointing students toward careers where there are actually jobs available. They’re being mindful about offering skillsets, certificates, and training that are focused toward careers, and not so much institutional educational knowledge. Schools are even encouraging certificate-type programs in partnership with traditional education.

How will a recession and unemployment affect opportunities for adult education? In what ways can the business community help support adult learners?

Monica Villalobos: Entrepreneurs tend to be lifelong learners. They’re constantly upskilling and learning new ways to adapt their business, their service, their job. I think the business community is a really good example of how to implement lifelong learning to stay current in any given industry. To keep the economy moving forward, we need adult learners with a lifelong learning mentality.

Shelley Watson: Most adults these days realize that education is no longer this linear thing. You don’t just complete your education and then you never need to look back. One of the major things that the business community can do is support Arizona’s community colleges as they offer high quality, cost-effective continuing education for adult learners.

Julie Engel: Our employers who are looking for employees are working very closely with workforce groups to help guide training so that people aren’t spending money on an education that isn’t going to end up benefitting them in a career or a job. They’re also finding ways to help offset the cost of this training.

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Monica Villalobos: I am fascinated and inspired by the steadfast commitment of educators to teach anywhere and evolve. I am also inspired by the philanthropic community, which has found a way to make a significant impact on the whole educational landscape. The philanthropic community does a really good job of finding the pain points in a particular community and providing the support system to optimize resources. 

Shelley Watson: As I’ve mentioned before, students are so resilient and adaptable that they’ve really inspired me throughout this. In my own home, it was really gratifying to watch my kids come home from college and just buckle down with a new paradigm to really finish their semesters strong. Students and educators have inspired us all with their amazing resilience and ability to quickly pivot to meet the challenges we face.

Julie Engel: Our education leaders and our healthcare leaders are both on the frontlines. It has been an honor to see the bravery and the efforts that both groups have put forth. It is truly inspirational to see how they’re putting everything to the side and doing what has to be done, and they’re doing it in a way that is efficient, safe, and providing results.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our current reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Monica Villalobos: Because we’re a small business state — 98 percent of all jobs come from small business — business owners must buy into the value of education. They must see that direct impact of any kind of education, whether it’s K-12 education, traditional post high school education, vocational education, internships, or apprenticeships. They must buy into the value of that for the success of their business. 

Shelley Watson: We can’t just speak about achieving 60 percent simply for education’s sake alone. Education has to be meaningfully tied to something for it to truly resonate, and for people to understand why it’s important. So that means highlighting how achieving that benchmark is going to provide more prosperity and quality of life for everyone in Arizona. Julie Engel: We need a lot of adults to earn their credentials in order to meet this goal. In spite of what’s happened in 2020, I am seeing people take advantage of the time to learn new skills, and our community colleges are trying to get training to those who have been affected by the pandemic. There is a real opportunity now to reskill and reeducate so many people

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