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Installing fiberglass composite crossarms from Geotek

Getting with the program

How some Minnesota companies are strategically building a dream team of employees with the help of local education and training programs

By Caitlin Hill
03-25-2014

When it comes to building a successful company, finding good talent is a high priority. With job search websites galore and resumes flooding managers’ inboxes, weeding through the applicants can be a daunting task. But there are some Minnesota companies that have found an easier way to seek out and recruit the type of employees that they believe will be most valuable to them.

By honing in on specific education and training programs that offer the type of training that they want in a new hire, these companies are building strong workforces with knowledge and experience tailored to their needs. And as companies identify the programs that are best suited for their business goals, they create a pipeline of potential new hires in the process. Here we look at a number of Minnesota companies that are hand-picking new hires from education and training programs that have already proven beneficial to their operations.

Strategic by design

Kristin Shardlow (right) and Lizz Feldt of Worrell Design

Worrell Design has been providing product design, development, and strategy services to both startups and Fortune 100 companies around the world since its inception in 1976. Its projects require the work of a talented creative team with expertise in both graphic and interactive design, as well as UX (user experience).

Creative lead Kristin Shardlow has been working at Worrell since 2010. Before starting with Worrell, she completed her Master of Fine Arts in interactive design at the University of Minnesota. Because of her familiarity with the curriculum, and through relationships she’s maintained with faculty and other industry professionals, Shardlow often looks to the university’s College of Design for interns and new hires. She also regularly speaks in classes or critiques students’ work as a guest, getting a firsthand look at promising young talent.

“We are frequently hiring interns, so [when I visit classes] I can make the pitch and see them face to face,” she says. “There are certain characteristics I’m always looking for, and these courses are the first filter.”

It was through her university connections that Shardlow met recent hire Lizz Feldt. After graduating from the U of M in May 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, Feldt was hired as a UX/graphic designer at Worrell the following September. Shardlow says it was Feldt’s passion for the entire design process that made her a stand-out candidate for the position. She valued Feldt’s ability to get into the trenches with the users and, at the same time, apply a beautiful finish to the design itself.

Feldt says her general design education is something that would have helped her in any design role. But what’s really helped in the position at Worrell is the combination of general design skills and the specific UX/interactive training that the university has started to introduce into the graphic design program. “Everything from broad critical thinking and client relations practices, down to concrete skills like information architecture, wire framing, and prototyping gave me tools to pull from ... to take a look at a problem and find creative solutions for users,” Feldt explains.

She adds that having the skills to see a project from the rough wire framing and prototyping stage through multiple iterations and user tests to the final design skin stage is something that’s unique to her experience at the University of Minnesota. “It allows me to take an active role in many parts of the process here at Worrell,” she says.

Feldt was first introduced to the fields of information architecture and interactive design in a sophomore-level class called “Design and Factors of Human Perception,” which was taught by adjunct professor Ange Wang. Wang received her bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Minnesota, as well as her Master of Fine Arts in interactive design. While working in the design industry over the years, Wang saw a huge need for more strategic thinking when it came to design. It’s this notion that led her to create a UX class at the University of Minnesota, called “User Experience in Design.”

Feldt uses many of the skills she gained while taking that class, which is open to different disciplines, not just design students. Students get the opportunity to work on projects with real-word clients, oftentimes in groups of students that aren’t all designers.

Wang teaches a process model through practice in the class. Through this type of teaching, she encourages students to try out their ideas, make mistakes, and learn along the way. By understanding the reasons why a design is working, students can then adjust their design to make it work better.

“Lots of students come into the class afraid of making a mistake or putting something in front of a client that isn’t perfect,” she explains. “But in this field, you need to do that, and you benefit from doing that. It’s not about perfection — it’s about modification.

It’s this in-depth, hands-on learning that equips students like Feldt with the knowledge and experience to be successful in their first jobs after graduation. “The skills and methods that I learned and honed in these classes are things that I honestly use every day here at Worrell,” she says.

Engineered for success

Professor Beckry Abdel-Magid instructs a student

Another valuable source of new hires is Winona State University’s composite materials engineering program. The school created the program in 1989 as companies voiced a need for engineers that had been educated and trained in composites. Today, recruiters from around the nation approach the program’s students, and about 40 percent of graduates are hired by Minnesota companies, according to Beckry Abdel-Magid, professor of composite materials engineering.

“By the time students are seniors, they know the basics of the materials that go into composites, how to analyze the materials, and how to make different types of composites,” Abdel-Magid says. “They learn how to make composite materials, how to design structures and components out of the materials, and how to manufacture them.”

These skills are valuable to companies such as Winona-based PlastiComp. Founded by Steven Bowen in 2003, PlastiComp develops and manufactures long-fiber reinforced composite thermoplastics for a variety of industries, including aerospace, defense, transportation, and sports and recreation, among others.

PlastiComp business development manager Eric Wollan is a graduate of the composite materials engineering program himself, so he understands the training and skills students gain through their studies at Winona State. Today, PlastiComp employs seven graduates of the program.

PlastiComp sees two main benefits to hiring students from this particular program. First, the students get a baseline training in composites. Second, PlastiComp is able to hire students as interns before graduation and become familiar with their work. “We train them while they are still in school and get them up to speed in the real world,” Wollan says. “We can vet them out and see if they will be a good fit for our company.”

But in addition to its specific curriculum and training, Wollan thinks the class sizes and dedicated faculty are also huge factors in graduating successful students. Small class sizes allow students to receive one-on-one attention, which can be key to the learning process.

Geotek, a composites development and engineering company in Stewartville, Minn., has also found success with new hires from the program. Its primary business is in the development and manufacture of fiberglass composite crossarms for electrical utilities.

Bruce Blumentritt, VP of research and development at Geotek, was a board member for the formation of the program. (He was then working as an engineering manager at IBM in Rochester.) To date, Geotek employs four graduates of the program, all of whom fill key positions within the company. “The core business at Geotek is development and manufacturing of composite structural products, and the graduates of the WSU program have the right skills to be major contributors quickly to this business,” he says.

The composite materials engineering department also offers a valuable resource to area companies through its Composite Materials Technology Center, which provides engineering services. Companies can come and test their materials in the center, with the students providing testing and prototyping. The center utilizes the equipment and facilities in the department, hires the students from the department, and involves engineering faculty in testing, design, and analysis.

“It provides a hands-on learning experience for students, and they often get internships with local companies through it,” Abdel-Magid says.

A sign of talent

The MCAD campus aglow at dusk

At Minneapolis-based Spye, which specializes in digital signage and related areas, technical expertise is highly valued. But new employees don’t necessarily have backgrounds in engineering or computer science. Instead, founder Paul Krumrich has made a number of hires through the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD).

The idea to hire MCAD grads came about partly because of creative director Michael Thornton. A former MCAD student and adjunct faculty, Thornton is one of the first people Krumrich hired when he founded the company in 2002.

As Krumrich started hiring employees beyond the original two, he asked an MCAD teacher who taught the 3D woodshop class to send good students his way. “We needed certain skills that those students had,” he says. “And we still have these relationships.”

When customers approach Spye, they want tasteful design. Knowing that, Krumrich often highlights to them the fact that he employs MCAD graduates. “What people want is something that’s designed well — they want a certain size or look for the speakers in their stereo,” he explains. “It’s easier to teach a good designer technology than it is to teach a Geek Squad kid good design.”

Thornton majored in furniture design at MCAD. With a background in sculpture, he knew it would be hard to make a living doing only that, so he decided he wanted to create functional things — a skill that serves him well in his role at Spye. “I use my skills gained from MCAD in some way or another every day,” he says.

Thornton has found MCAD to be a good source of well-versed talent. For instance, employees with training in 3D sculpture and design can be valuable assets in communicating with architects or builders, who are often involved in the company’s projects. “When you understand how things are assembled or built, it’s a lot easier to communicate with other people who work in that area,” he explains. “We’re used to looking at plans and sketching through those conceptual ideas.”

A constructive program

Ryan Companies is a third-generation, family-owned developer, designer, capital investment consultant, builder, and real estate manager. Headquartered in Minneapolis and with 10 offices nationwide, the 75-year-old company has found graduates from the construction management program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, to be a valuable source of talent over the years.

After interning at Ryan Companies and graduating from the program in 2003, Jason Gabrick went on to work full-time for the company, where he now serves as one of four division managers in the North Central region. In his role, he’s responsible for mentoring and leading his group of project assistants and managers through all phases of the construction process.

“Construction is a dynamic, impactful, and challenging industry,” Gabrick says. “The education that I received at MSU prepared me for a successful entry into the business side of construction.”

Dating back to the 1970s, the construction management program has developed and grown significantly over the years. In 2012, it received accreditation and currently operates with four full-time professors as part of the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology. Nearly 1,500 students have graduated from the program over the past 40 years.

“Our alumni are everywhere — building roads, bridges, houses, malls, factories, and infrastructure projects,” says Scott Fee, a professor with the program. “These are professional constructors with project management skills ... and almost all of our students get a minor in business administration.”

The program requires students to do a 15-week, 600-hour internship in the industry before graduating. At any given time, Ryan Companies usually has at least two interns from MSU, and you can find program graduates holding positions at all levels of the company.

According to Gabrick, the internship requirement is a major reason the program has been so successful throughout the years. Often, students are brought on as full-time Ryan employees at the conclusion of their internships. “We are able to get a great glimpse of the talents and personality of a student while they gain a perspective of our company and the construction industry,” he explains.

At Ryan Companies, the program interns receive hands-on experience with the day-to-day operations of a project manager, helping with duties like taking meeting minutes, doing bidding work, and attending owners’ meetings.Gabrick believes the program produces students that understand construction, and he notes it covers both technical skills and soft skills. Students graduate with an understanding of the business side of construction, including contracts, accounting, sales, and marketing, as well as how to solve problems and work in a team.

Speaking from personal experience, Gabrick feels that the internship portion of the program was a key aspect that prepared him for the industry. Additionally, the balance of classroom learning and industry-specific, hands-on activities like team research projects, student competitions, and job site tours made a huge impact on his educational experience. “As construction continues to evolve and embrace new technologies and processes, the construction management program has done a nice job at continuing to incorporate these changes into the curriculum,” he says.

Low-risk hires

Marty Hebig of Maverick Software Consulting works with a student

With a demand for competent and adaptable IT employees across the country, Lakeville-based Maverick Software Consulting is doing its part to help companies find the workers they need. Maverick operates as a staff augmentation and college recruiting service, placing students in part-time IT positions where they learn job skills directly applicable to their prospective work places.

Today, Maverick operates physical offices next to five universities, three of which are located in Minnesota (the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, St. Cloud State University, and Minnesota State University in Mankato). As the company continues to grow, it’s clear that clients — mostly large companies such as Thomson Reuters — are seeing the value in hiring through Maverick.

“Companies build relationships with students and know they are capable,” says Marty Hebig, founder of Maverick. “It’s a low-risk hire because the student knows what they’re getting into... [The company] alleviates all of that risk with us, and they get real work done while that student is in college.”

Last year, Maverick introduced a new twist, making it easier for small businesses to also get involved with its offering. Now, inconveniently located students can work remotely for small companies. Maverick provides them with a laptop with special hardware to protect the data and track the location of the computer, giving companies peace of mind. “It’s the same model [as the original], but we can work with a small startup company with a single student at a smaller university,” Hebig explains.

One client happy with the arrangement is gaming startup Qonqr, maker of the location-based mobile game of the same name. After meeting Hebig at an entrepreneur mixer, Qonqr co-founder Scott Davis thought the remote worker model might be a good fit for his small business. “What appealed to me is that they had the ‘big brother’ software where they can monitor the interns,” he says. “We also let our office space go, so we could work remotely. It was kind of the perfect fit for us.”

Using Maverick, Davis hired Cole Durdan as a full-time summer intern in June 2013. Durdan was then a student at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville. Working from school or home, at first Durdan was mainly responsible for testing software. Then he started to take on more tasks, such as building new product features. Today, Durdan is a software developer with Qonqr. “We tested [the model] with him,” Davis says. “I have every confidence that he will do good work for us.”