Para M. Jones engages Stark State College staff and the business community to keep the region’s economic engine revving

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Stark State College is focused on preparing students and graduates for the jobs that exist in its environment, says Para M. Jones, the college’s president. In order to adapt to the ever-changing needs of the community, however, the college must be able to pivot itself and its 500-plus employees to meet the needs of today’s businesses.

“We’re continuously scanning the environment, talking to businesses,” Jones says. “We’ve got an ongoing dialogue about what are the needs of business, and then our job, our mission, is to develop programs and develop the workforce to respond to those needs.”

Jones, the college’s first female president, has been at the helm of Stark State since 2012. She spent 22 years working her way up through the organization before leaving for a brief stint as president of Spartanburg Community College in South Carolina.

Jones says it has been necessary to prepare the college to take advantage of today’s opportunities, identify the right leadership to understand the needs of the community, and then determine what its role could and should be to serve its students, the businesses in its community and the region.

With so many approaches to take, prioritizing the different opportunities is essential, Jones says. Determining where one initiative fits in with the rest of what the college is doing is part of the challenge.

Finding its fit

Upon returning to the college, Jones says her immediate challenge was to listen. She says she had to set aside her history at Stark and use her experience from the Spartanburg presidency — a brand new community where she had to build new relationships — to help reacquaint herself with the college, the community and the needs of both.

“I did not fall into the trap of assuming anything,” Jones says. “So I spent a lot of time talking to students, to our trustees, to our faculty, to our staff, to businesses and organizations in our community to really get a sense of the needs and where we are and what’s happening and what’s on people’s minds, and actually I’d say that I really had an opportunity in that the college had not had an updated strategic plan.”

Because it hadn’t had such an approved plan, Jones was able to develop a shared vision and mission that would better define the plan in the context of today’s needs.

“It was an opportunity for us to quickly get ahead of some of the opportunities, like shale for oil and gas, that were emerging that we were beginning to look at but didn’t really have a plan for how to address,” Jones says.

In addition to talking with students, faculty and staff, she also talked to the broader community — businesses, organizations and stakeholders — about what was happening externally. Those conversations made it clear that oil and gas needed to be a priority.

Under the leadership of one of its faculty members, Stark State put together a plan to prepare a workforce for Ohio’s burgeoning oil and gas industry.

“That took initiative on our part to say, ‘Let’s look at what’s happening, let’s position to help our college be a leader in education and training,’” Jones says.

Part of putting the college in a position to take advantage of the need for education in oil and gas was leveraging Kathleen Steere, Stark State’s coordinator of oil and gas programs.

“She was working in our chemistry labs, but we knew that she has an excellent background,” Jones says. “She’s a petroleum engineer and a geologist from Marietta College, and so we immediately brought her forth and asked her if she would help lead the development of our programs in shale, and she has done a remarkable job over the last two years.”

As a comprehensive community college, part of Stark State’s role in the marketplace is defined through advisory committees of business and industry professionals.

“We meet with them on an ongoing basis,” Jones says.

Businesses from that industry were brought in so the college could ask what it should be doing.

The number of companies on the oil and gas advisory committee has continued to expand with the addition of Chesapeake Energy, Kenan Advantage Group and The Timken Co.

“That’s one way we obviously live out that mission of workforce and economic development, by making sure we’re having that ongoing dialog with business and keeping up with needs of current and emerging industries,” Jones says.

She says Stark State is now a leader in shale education and is working with two colleges in the Marcellus shale area in Ohio, and the Barnett and the Eagle Ford shale areas of Texas as part of a U.S. Department of Labor grant to develop the first national curriculum in oil and gas.

The college is also working with Chevron, Chesapeake, XTO, Anadarko, Shell and other major companies to develop the curriculum. Stark State is also serving the northeast Ohio region as well as West Virginia, Michigan and Illinois with that curriculum.

Staying nimble

Evolving the college is a perpetual challenge, but it gets continuous feedback from its students about the quality of the education they’re receiving every semester through class evaluations and student surveys to gauge the balance of resources across the growing number of programs and needs so they can be adjusted based on market demand.

For example, the college’s dental hygiene program had to be scaled to produce only the number of graduates that the market needed. Its nursing program, conversely, was expanded because there was a great demand for nurses, “so we’re constantly looking at the hiring,” Jones says.

All that data feeds back into the college’s planning and budgeting, from how many of its students are employed to all the employment market data. It’s constantly being reviewed at the academic levels so resources and program sizes can be adjusted accordingly.

But with 15,000 students, some 500 employees and a $70 million annual budget — Stark State is the fourth largest of the 23 community and technical colleges in the state — the challenge for an organization of its size is remaining responsive.

“How do we remain nimble? How do we remain agile and change gears to meet the needs of business and industry? It takes a lot of communication to change gears. It takes systems and processes that are aligned to change gears, so it’s a challenge,” Jones says.

“It takes a lot of organizational leadership, and I think one of my ongoing challenges is how do we continue to improve our organizational operations as we grow,” she says. Her answer is to have ongoing communication.

Faculty members need to focus daily on their students, she says. They don’t always have the opportunity to stop and look at the big picture and changes in the environment, so the college relies on its leadership to communicate clearly with everyone through email newsletters, face-to-face meetings with all faculty and staff, and all-college meetings each semester.

“So basically every five weeks I am in front of all faculty, all staff,” Jones says. “I meet regularly with classes and students. I feel that’s part of my job, but I also encourage all the leaders of the college to do that so that we can continuously share what’s happening.”

Communication helps lay the groundwork for organization shifts.

“We try not to change direction completely by surprise, but we’re in a dynamic environment,” Jones says.

“The best environmental scanning and input we get, both on the macro level and at the program level, is from our business and industry partners,” she says. “They tell us exactly what’s going on. They help us make plans for adapting to changes.”

Setting benchmarks

Jones says her challenge is to find better ways of ongoing organizational learning that’s accessible and makes available all the things Stark State has learned organizationally.

“So we’re looking at documenting best practices and different strategies for doing that as we grow because we are a big organization,” she says. “You know, we can’t always be perfect in everything we do, but how do we continue learning from our decisions and make sure that we’re documenting what we’ve learned so that next time we’re faced with something similar we have better data?”

To measure efficacy, the college looks at enrollment, how its students are doing and its job-placement rates to ensure it’s offering the programs that businesses and industry needs “because when we do that, then we have high placement rates.Our students find jobs, they find internships,” Jones says.

The college also benchmarks.

“We don’t just measure Stark State against Stark State,” she says. “We measure Stark State and benchmark with our peers in the state and in the nation.”

Jones says that ultimately Stark State is focused on insuring that its students succeed.

“Our business is students,” she says. “For us it’s all about providing quality education at an affordable cost that will lead to rewarding careers for our students, and in the process of doing that, being a major force for economic development.”

Takeaways:

  • Communication with stakeholders is key.
  • Continuously monitor efficacy.
  • Research your market to understand your best fit.

The Jones File:

Name: Para M. Jones
Title: President
Company: Stark State College

Born: Canton

Education: At Mount Union College she earned undergraduate degrees in English, communication and Spanish, graduating magna cum laude with three majors in three years and one quarter. She earned her master’s degree in business administration with honors at Ashland University and a doctorate in higher education leadership at the University of Nebraska.

What’s your favorite book? I love anything Malcolm Gladwell writes.

On the fiction side, anything John Updike, anything Isabel Allende. I love South American writers because they always have ghosts in their stories; they’re very spiritual. They just transport you.

What’s one thing you love to talk about but never get the chance to? I want to tell people (about Stark State’s students).  They come from all these vastly different worlds, and they’re all trying to learn and improve and strive for new challenges and new careers and new ways to reinvent themselves. So I don’t often get a chance to talk about those things, and I’d like to.

The other thing I’d love to talk about are my children, and I try not to do that too much. I do that with my husband — just what they’re doing and what they’re achieving. That’s always fun.

What is the best business advice you ever received? Be prepared, know what’s happening and work very hard.