A few years ago, Southern Oregon University asked Rogue Valley area employers to describe the qualities they were looking for in the ideal employee.

“We heard over and over from a number of Rogue Valley businesses that they were looking for employees with strong interpersonal skills and strong emotional intelligence,” says Moneeka Settles, coordinator of SOU’s Innovation and Leadership degree program.

In a nutshell: Employees “who know themselves and see themselves as leaders.”

And, she adds, “… who are creative thinkers.”

Settles also knew that many working professionals feel “boxed out” in an ever-increasing competitive job market where the ideal job or career advancement is obtained by candidates who have bachelor’s degrees.

She says the multidisciplinary Innovation and Leadership bachelor’s degree program was created to meet employers’ demands and satisfy the aspirations of those who pushed higher education aside as they focused on careers and family.

Launched in January 2015, the degree program will graduate its first cohort of 15 students Friday.

The fast-paced, 21-month program is an opportunity for working professionals who never completed college to do so while still working their day jobs and tending to family commitments.

Enrollees must have at least one to two years of college and a minimum of five years in the workplace beyond the entry level.

The 16 required courses are studied in five-week increments, with students meeting once a week for four-hour workshops and study group sessions at the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center in Medford.

John Bowling of Sustainable Leadership Consultants is one of the professors in the program. The project, he says, is targeted to those who have met with moderate success in the workplace, but are ready “to take the next step in their work life … it may be expanding leadership responsibilities or making their current role more impactful.”

To have greater influence in business and industry, he says, students are made aware that “the quick pace of change” in technology and “a workforce that is much more diverse and complex” requires “developing and executing a different, more effective leadership strategy.”

Students study applied business research, communications, emerging media, entrepreneurship and psychology. They also delve into the realities of today's workplace and navigate courses in negotiation, conflict management, group dynamics, creative thinking and ethical and legal issues surrounding information technology.

Most of the students “have been established in the work world for quite a while,” Settles says. So the program is designed as “a wonderful pairing of academics and applied workplace experience.”

The Innovation and Leadership program has proven to be a hit. A second cohort is halfway through the program, and a third got underway at the beginning of the fall term. A fourth is set to begin in the fall of 2017.

“(The program) is very attractive to the full-time employee,” says Settles.

It is also highly attractive to those with nagging regrets about never completing their degrees.

Amie Mills says she was a “professional mom” for 25 years. After giving birth to the first of her four children at age 21, she stopped just 17 units short of obtaining a college degree.

After years of working in the medical industry and helping her parents run their large-scale surgical equipment company in California, she and her husband moved their family back to Oregon several years ago.

She says she became “increasingly frustrated” that every job she applied for required a bachelor’s degree.

“I’d worked in the corporate environment all those years, and it didn’t matter that I didn’t have that degree,” she says.

But, as time went on, “not finishing my degree bothered me more and more,” she says.

With her children grown and in college, Mills says the timing was right two years ago for her to go back to college. She had her sights on a degree that encompassed her interests in marketing, management and psychology.

She says “it took courage to go back,” but when she learned about the brand new Innovation and Leadership program, “I hit the roof, I was so excited.”

Through the program, she says, she has been able “to scratch a 25-year itch.”

And, her job hunt is over.

Mills was hired by another member of the cohort to work for his real estate development company after she impressed him with her social media and marketing savvy — or as she says, “thinking outside the box.” She also plans to use her newfound skills to help her husband expand their marketing firm.

While some have enrolled in the Innovation and Leadership program to bounce their careers upward, or score a lateral move, others are using the program to reinvent themselves.

David Downey is taking such a quantum leap.

After nearly two decades in retail banking and a promotion to bank branch manager, Downey says, he considered himself “successful, even without a degree.”

But the 9-to-5 job “did not feed my passion.”

Beneath the business suit was the heart of a rap artist, songwriter and musician.

It was a challenge, he says, to be both a banker and budding performing artist.

The INL program, he says, has been “life-changing and impactful.”

After nearly 20 years away from the college scene, the 38-year-old quit his job to work on his bachelor’s degree and pursue his dream.

“It was tough at first to be back in school,” he says, but the competitive spirit within the cohort pushed him forward.

The experience, he says, “has been empowering.”

He’s used his newly acquired knowledge of emerging media and digital arts to develop a website to promote his music business. He was even able to secure a temporary job as a radio host.

New skills and “clarity” have made him see “the value in my talents,” he says. He’s currently pressing a CD of original material and illustrating a book of poems. He’s also considering graduate school, which will allow him to channel his passion for both academia and art into a career in the nonprofit sector.

Other graduates include a former Medford deli owner who also made a career change. Settles says the program enabled that student to switch to office management. She now works for a land-use planning company in Medford.

Another student made the move from grocery store management in the private sector to managing human resources in the public sector.

Settles’ favorite story, however, is of a woman in her 60s who, after putting four children through college, decided that it was her turn.

The student’s motivation in enrolling in the INL program, she says, was “was just for the sheer satisfaction” of completing a journey begun decades ago.

Settles says Friday’s graduation is “a really a celebration.”

“It’s been cool” to witness what “the power of a cohort of highly motivated, smart, interesting and fun people can accomplish.

“It’s pretty exciting to think that these people will be hitting the Rogue Valley with an incredible set of skills,” she adds.

— Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.