The Business of Education

From the classroom to the boardroom, a look at how educators and businesses are making the most of their partnerships.

By Caitlin Hill

Zach Fournier, a senior at Minnesota State University, Mankato, has been working as a software engineering intern with Thomson Reuters for the past year and a half. Fournier found the position through a faculty liaison who seeks out college students for Maverick Software, a company that recruits and employs students to develop and test software for companies like Thomson Reuters. While studying information technology at school, Fournier says he's been able to apply what he's learned from his internship to his classroom studies.

"Maverick has been a great opportunity because it's real world hands-on experience working with teams, doing all spectrums of applications and I get to actually apply it," he says. "At first it was me trying to bring my knowledge to the job, and then I would learn things on the job and apply it back to my classwork."

Since its inception in 2006, Maverick has been able to successfully place 100 percent of its student employees into full-time positions with major corporations after graduation, which is quite a feat in today's competitive job market.

But maybe companies like Maverick are on to something. Building deeper relationships with educators and universities is becoming increasingly important for businesses. And educators are beginning to rely on businesses more and more to help them forecast the future industry needs so they can help influence and prepare students to succeed in the workplace after graduation.

Taking Initiative

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) Chancellor Steven Rosenstone is putting his plan into action and finding out just what businesses need so universities can better prepare their students and meet industry demands. Before becoming Chancellor in August 2011, Rosenstone served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. Before stepping into this position in 1996, Rosenstone garnered a reputation as a visionary and effective leader.

Taking Initiative

In his role as chancellor, Rosenstone continues to exhibit those visionary skills as he brings together educators and business people in Minnesota State Colleges and Universities' Workforce Assessment initiative, the first part of the larger Workforce Alignment plan. The main goal of the initiative is to address the state's growing skills gap. The assessment engages employers in developing precise projections for how many workers and professionals, with what kinds of skills, will be needed in the state of Minnesota, for what kinds of jobs.

"This can't be a one shot deal-it has to be a new way of doing business. We need to be in much closer ongoing communication [with businesses] to understand well and understand sooner, what the needs are for our graduates," Rosenstone says.

Through the initiative they hope to gain a better understanding of what it is that businesses and industries need in graduates. Are the people meeting the needs and if not, where are the gaps? To do this, they've set up 44 listening sessions around the state to sit and listen to what employers have to say about their current and future workforce needs, as well as where their industry is going in the next three to five years. Sessions include more than 500 employers from the healthcare, information technology, manufacturing, engineering, energy, transportation and agriculture industries. Most of the sessions have already been completed, and the rest will take place this fall.

"We want to find a way in which the work we're doing is better aligned with the workforce needs of Minnesota," Rosenstone says. "We need the right number of graduates in the right fields with the right skills coming out of the right schools to meet those needs."

But of course, the big question is, "Then what?" Collect the data and put it to work. Rosenstone wants to make the necessary changes in the academic programs-content, learning outcomes for graduates and training in fundamental and technical skills. But one of the biggest challenges they face is getting the information to the young people that need it. Rosenstone says that getting the information to high school students is crucial to help inform the decisions they are making about the college programs they enroll in. The goal is to help upcoming college students enroll in programs where there are jobs and influence the pipeline-or fill the seats that are going to meet the market demands for skilled workers.

"We take this seriously and are putting a lot of energy into listening and making changes," Rosenstone says.

One thing that they have consistently heard throughout the listening sessions is that employers want the full package-not just the technical skills, but the foundational skills too, such as interacting effectively with customers, teamwork, leadership and the facility to work across cultures. They've also heard that every industry is worried about competitive markets and increasing technology, and as a result are putting more focus on the customers and the growing internationalization of their clients and markets. But through all of this, businesses are realizing the importance of partnering with educators to get the type of employees they need to survive in today's economy.

Along with other prominent business and education leaders, Rosenstone is a participant in the Itasca Project's report on higher education. The group has been working together since last fall to chart a path for higher education and its relationship with the state of Minnesota. The group focused on the intersection between higher education and the business community, looking at the things that these groups can do together to advance the state's prosperity. Rosenstone hopes that universities can use the information gleaned from the research to work with the business industry and identify areas to invest in together and gain competitive advantages. They hope to get students to the finish line faster and make sure that when they graduate, they have not only sat through classes, but also have the necessary skills to do the work that needs to be done.

"There's a willingness from businesses to work in collaborative ways, to grow internships and apprenticeships, to work with students early and serve on advisor committees that assess the quality of students and programs," Rosenstone says. "To get this right, we all have to work a little differently and put the pieces together in new, more powerful ways. If we do that, Minnesota will have a very healthy economic future."

Making Connections

Martin Hebig started Maverick Consulting in 2000 after he got the idea from his own experience working as an intern for a computer software company as an intern while attending Minnesota State University, Mankato. Maverick began by doing automated testing, and in 2006 expanded to what it is today, Maverick 2.0. The original partnership began between Thomson Reuters and Minnesota State University, Mankato. Students worked part time for Thomson Reuters through Maverick doing software testing and in turn, Thomson Reuters had the value of hiring the students after graduation.

In Hebig's original five-year business plan, he forecasted employing 10 students. Then maybe they could increase to 25 students and add another client. But after six months, Thomson Reuters realized the students could do a lot more and signed an exclusive agreement with Maverick. Since then, Maverick has tried to keep up with Thomson Reuters' growth, employing 80 students in four different locations. In the last year, Hebig started reaching out to other companies, placing students at Deluxe Corp, Symantec, MTS and Digital River Inc. among others.

"We're trying to solve a problem that's existed for 20 to 30 years," says Hebig. "Companies can't find enough qualified IT people to hire." He says this is not the fault of universities, but simply a fact of the environment that we are in. With infinite technology developments happening every day, it's difficult for universities to train students in all types of technology, especially in the wake of shrinking budgets.

"This allows us to help the universities out and they can work with the employees [at the companies]. [Students] can get that experience-plus, it makes sense for a lot of companies," Hebig explains.

BooksBig Benefits

Businesses like Thomson Reuters have seen the benefits of employing students firsthand. Thomson Reuters pioneered the collaboration with Maverick Software Consulting in August 2006 to provide on-campus opportunities for computer science students at selected partner universities to work with Thomson Reuters. Since then, Thomson Reuters has expanded to include an additional partner university each of the subsequent three years.

"Students gain valuable, real-world software engineering experience using current technologies and methodologies," says Anna Grecco, vice president of editorial and content technology at Thomson Reuters.

So far, Thomson Reuters has hired more than 55 students who have worked with the company through Maverick for full-time technology positions after graduation. "The students we work with through Maverick and then hire into technology positions are able to more quickly and more easily step into positions because of the experience they already have with our teams, products and technologies," Grecco says.

These students often have less of a learning curve and already have an established network of resources and relationships within Thomson Reuters that they can tap into; additionally, they have familiarity working in a professional team environment.

Grecco believes that IT businesses and educational institutions should continue to look for additional collaborative opportunities to help educate and prepare students for employment. IT businesses can propose recommendations on curriculum and projects that would expose students to current technologies and practices. "With better prepared students, educational institutions can provide their students with greater opportunities to fill positions in IT businesses," she says.

Other companies are also seeing the advantages of forming personal partnerships with universities. Tom Novak, human resources manager at Kato Engineering, is a Minnesota State University, Mankato, graduate himself and recently hired four MSU graduates.

Currently Kato sponsors two engineering scholarships. Part of the scholarship award includes the opportunity to work part time with Kato and complete a co-op or internship. Many of these students work their way to becoming full-time employees after graduating from the school of engineering at MSU.

Novak says they also try to maintain a good working relationship with the chair of the Engineering School to help identify the top talent. As a result, Kato Engineering was able to hire the No. 1 ranked student in the School of Engineering last year. Kato also has internships for most of their professional careers. "We believe that it benefits everyone-the school, the student and Kato Engineering," Novak says. "It gives students an opportunity to see and feel how their chosen career will be in the business world."

Novak also sees the value for his business and says that they often go out of their way to give interns meaningful projects and not just "busy work." This way, not only does his company get projects completed, they can also establish a positive brand for Kato, and students can share their positive experience with their classmates and professors. In Novak's eyes, this is what will help them become the employer of choice in the community.

"The relationship [between businesses and educators] is just as important as your professional network-and you know how important that is. Working together, we can identify the changing needs for the various skill sets for future employees," he says. "Having students educated in the right areas for the changing business needs is critical for us to remain competitive in the market we serve, as well as the competitive job market."