Recently, Voice of San Diego held an event about “innovation economy.” VOSD reporter Kelly Bennett moderated an excellent panel that highlighted the potential for the innovation economy in the San Diego region. Innovation was defined as primarily small, startup tech companies who were developing new ideas and innovative products and bringing them to market.

The forum was a lively and informative discussion highlighted by senior sage Mary Walshok, a vice chancellor at UC San Diego, who chronicles the evolution of San Diego’s economy in her soon-to-be released book, Invention and Reinvention: The Evolution of San Diego’s Innovation Economy. She and I both remember the ’70s and ’80s, before the internet when technology innovation was a driver for the military and San Diego’s manufacturing industries, and not for the broader economy. But thanks in many ways to our higher education institutions likes UCSD, San Diego State University and our community colleges, San Diego’s economy has changed dramatically since those days.

The VOSD “innovation economy” panel was held at Evo Nexus, a downtown technology innovator where entrepreneurs can work in a collaborative environment to develop their ideas. One of the panelists highlighted that there are 30 to 40 small startup technology companies located in downtown San Diego alone. Another panelist was from Carlsbad, where technology incubators are housing even more innovative startup companies.

This discussion about entrepreneurialism and innovation should lead us all to think deeper about the role that public education plays in supporting this new innovation economy. To explore that further, the panel was asked this question: “What skills should our schools and colleges be teaching to students to prepare them to work in the innovation economy?”

As a new member of the board of trustees of the San Diego Community College District and through my work during the last five years at the San Diego Unified School District, I have had the opportunity to learn about many excellent programs offered to students in our public education system. From that experience, I believe that the question I posed to the VOSD panel needs to be a key focus for schools and colleges as they evolve to prepare students for the workplaces of the future.

The answers the question from the panelists were no surprise.  One responded by saying that “students need to learn how to be more entrepreneurial.” She explained that she had worked with very smart college graduates who had the technical knowledge, but had no understanding of what it meant to be entrepreneurial. She indicated that it was more than just knowing what a business plan was; it was having an understanding of what it takes to run a business and having the communication skills that are needed in the workplace.

So how can our schools and colleges address this challenge of making students more entrepreneurial? While certainly more needs to be done with curriculum in this area, we see very hopeful signs at San Diego Unified schools and at our local community colleges.

During the last decade, San Diego Unified has dramatically expanded career technical programs in high schools. These are not the old vocational programs that I remember from my high school days, but rather they offer focused fields of study about a particular career that links the basic curriculum with real-world jobs. San Diego Unified now has programs in digital media arts, biotechnology, health sciences, automotive mechanics, culinary, green technology and many more. These career-oriented programs use an approach called “linked learning,” which connects the basic subjects of English, math, writing and science with the study of the career field selected. Students become more engaged and excited about learning and become more prepared for college and career after high school.

At San Diego’s community colleges and Continuing Education programs, there are many opportunities for students to prepare in technical fields for jobs the innovation economy. Miramar College offers a field of study in biotechnology and advanced transportation, preparing students for four-year degrees or for other jobs in those emerging industries. Mesa College is one of the major feeder schools for UCSD in fields like biology and preparation for a wide range of allied health fields. City College has an extensive program for STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and also offers its own technology incubator for small startup companies. Continuing Education programs offer innovative high-tech applications for programs such as automotive technology and provide many students their first step toward a college degree.

But while our schools and community colleges are doing a good job in offering career training and technical studies for students, we continue to hear from innovation economy leaders that students need to be better entrepreneurs. We must also ask this question: Can entrepreneurialism be taught as a subject and how can we introduce entrepreneurial training into our schools and higher education?

Fortunately community colleges around the country are getting that message. As board trustees, we are continually looking for ways to connect our college programs with the needs of the community and the workforce demands in our region. In that regard, my fellow trustee Peter Zschiesche and I recently attended a workshop that was held by the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship.  NAACE is a nonprofit organization for educators, entrepreneurs and distinguished business development professionals working to provide quality programs and services in entrepreneurship education and serve as advocates for the “entrepreneurship movement.” It offers community colleges a nationwide link from their traditional role of workforce development to new programs that offer students skills for entrepreneurial development.

The San Diego Community College District is also one of the 19 community colleges nationwide, out of more than 1,200, that make up the prestigious League for Innovation in the Community College. The league is a key leader in influencing the expansion and improvement of workforce training programs in community colleges in the U.S. and Canada.

As our public education system continues to evolve and improve, it is clear the “entrepreneurialism” and “innovation” are the new skills that are needed to prepare our young students for successful futures in the innovation economy.

Rhinerson’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

Bernie Rhinerson

Bernie Rhinerson is a board trustee of the San Diego Community College District.

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