Economics / Universities

Robert Morris University is retraining Pittsburgh’s workforce, one company at a time

The new approach to leadership development pulls in RMU's communications and nursing schools — for a chemical company.

The art-deco Koppers building is a fixture of the Pittsburgh skyline. The 105-year-old company is seeking new ways to develop its workforce. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons user David Brossard, used under a Creative Commons license)

This story is part of Grow PA, a reported series on economic development across 10 Pennsylvania counties supported by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. Sign up for our weekly curated email here.

In developing a specialized leadership training module for Koppers Inc., Derya Jacobs, Vice President of Corporate Relations at Robert Morris University, didn’t just look to the business school.

“Whenever you hear ‘leadership training’ people always think business school first,” Jacobs said.

But she says with Koppers came to them seeking a leadership development program, they decided to take a slightly different approach: The training will include not only RMU’s business school faculty, but instructors from the school’s communications and nursing schools as well.

“I remember when I pitched the proposal to them,” Jacobs said with a chuckle. Having nursing faculty train potential leaders for an international chemicals and railroad supply company wasn’t an obvious fit.

But when she explained the training standards that nursing school provides, which include team building, innovation, live roleplaying and creating real-world scenarios, the connection became much clearer.

“So now our leadership faculty is working with the nursing faculty to create these managerial cases that the participants in the training will work on,” she said.

As part of ongoing regional efforts to develop and train the next generation of workers, RMU faculty will teach the Koppers Leadership Forum, a specialized course for the company’s current and future leaders.

The two-and-a-half-day training sessions began in October, and include participation from Koppers’ senior managers, including President and CEO Leroy Ball. He received his MBA from RMU.

The goal for the partnership is to help Koppers refine its existing development program, with RMU training tailored to the company’s specific needs.

“It’s my hope that this initial agreement leads to a longer-term relationship with RMU designed around helping us build out our pipeline of talent to carry us successfully into the future,” Ball said in a statement.

RMU’s workforce development training programs have been influenced in part by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development’s Inflection Point study. The 2016 study of the Pittsburgh region’s workforce found that there could be a shortage of close to 80,000 workers for future jobs, which require skills today’s workers may not have. So retraining and developing workers will be key for the region moving forward.

Robert Morris president Chris Howard, who serves on the Allegheny Conference board of directors, says the university wants to be a partner to companies in their employee development efforts.

“We also want to ensure that our professional workforce has the skills necessary for continued economic growth in western Pennsylvania,” Howard said in a statement.

Jacobs said Koppers told the RMU team that innovation was important to them, and since it’s a global company, they wanted to make sure their employees have the skills to work in a dynamic environment.

“They really wanted to take a customized approach to developing their employees,” she said. A big part of the company’s goal was to retain the talent it already has, but have a solid development plan it can present to new employees during recruitment efforts.

“As millennials enter managerial roles, they look for more opportunities for engagement within their organizations,” Jacobs said. “So that is on companies’ radar. They want to be able to say ‘here’s what we offer’ and show the new employee how they could progress in the company. That is a new trend, but in the last few years it’s becoming a real concern, something companies really want to emphasize.”

Jacobs said the module developed for Koppers is transferable, but like the many professional development trainings RMU has created for other companies, isn’t one size fits all. Companies don’t want a pre-packaged set of training, she explained; they want to make sure they’re developing employees for their specific company needs.

A professor of operations research/management, Jacobs said often managerial training happens in silos. RMU tries to take a creative approach when designing corporate trainings so that companies get something that will be meaningful for its workforce, she said.

And with so many faculty available across various disciplines, the school can create a really rich curriculum for a company, even if it’s not entirely sure what its needs are.

“If we collaborate with each other, all sorts of neat ideas come together,” she said.


Series: Grow PA

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