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In talent development offerings, seek industry input early and often

Excerpted from the June 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

“Knowing the customer” is never more important, say industry engagement executives, than when you’re seeking to enhance your talent pipeline. Whether it be in the structuring of internship or co-op programs, enhancing curriculum, or planning special events, industry input is always front of mind and at the foundation of best practices.

“Within our Student Industry Fellows program, we have three pillars,” says Andrew H. Potter, director of university experiential learning at the University of Georgia. The first pillar alone — Project Sponsor Relations — has several critical communication components. “Number one are bi-weekly working sessions with them as part of our focus on skills,” he says. “Number two, a formal, qualitative survey the sponsor completes at end of the program. Number three, and probably the most valuable, is an exit interview with an executive from the team, where we’re literally brutal on skill quality, and what else they need.”

“We take a consultative approach,” adds John Garnetti, managing director, Office of Business Engagement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We start by seeking to understand; we speak to our corporate partners about their strategic vision, goals, and objectives — regardless of university. Then, we have similar talks with our internal stakeholders — the college or school, faculty, and some students.”

Leah Aschmann, director of corporate relations at Rice University, takes a similar approach. “We do a lot of listening in our work,” she shares. “It’s asking the right questions. I say from the outset, when working with companies, that it’s really important for both of us to have a mutually beneficial relationship. If a company wants recruiting to guarantee 10 interns a year from Rice, that would be very difficult for us because we’re not too large. If they get one or two a year from Rice, that’s good. So, we do manage expectations.”

“We have to ask them,” says Alan Rae, director of the NYS Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics, University at Buffalo. “We basically network through our own contacts — through faculty and alumni. Sandra (Sandra K. Small, PhD, the center’s science education manager) has a huge spreadsheet with all of the companies that have had interns. We touch base with them, ask how things are developing, what their needs are going to be, and what’s changing. We all have two ears and one mouth, and we use them in that proportion.”

On the other hand, adds Small, it sometimes falls to the university to let the industry partner know that they need to look a little deeper. “When companies are looking for talent, they have no idea where to start, so we help them navigate the university and find the right program people,” she says.

Or they many only think they know what they want. “A lot of times they’ll say, ‘We need electrical engineers.’ Okay, we can work on that, but when you drill down into the skills we can branch out to [other areas of] the university. It may not be just that one department they thought it was.” Whatever the issues, however, she notes that “you have to find that common language.”

At times, she admits, that can be a challenge. “Some companies want a very specific position filled. They’re looking for a head-hunter, which is not the best practice for a university, so it’s ‘give and take’ on both sides,” she comments. “They know their needs, but we know our students — let’s come together.”

Excerpted from the June 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can access the complete article and the entire issue here. Other practitioners may subscribe to receive the UIEA newsletter at