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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.”

Open to change

As seen through two recent examples Aschmann shares, it’s important to keep one’s eyes and ears open at all times, because you never know when an industry partner will provide you with a ready-made lesson. “I’ve had a couple of examples come to bear lately,” she says. “In one, this company approached us looking at engagement on different levels — professional development for their own employees, and also to [enhance] their understanding and possibly have a recruitment of students.”

A series of conversations, she says, revealed that “they wanted to do a deep dive into our computer science curriculum, and work with the chair very closely to really understand when our students would be ready to successfully fulfill an internship,” she explains. “It’s been an interesting experience for all of us; I’ve been doing this specific work for a decade almost and have not had as much of a deep dive to understand us. They indicated our students might be ready for internships sooner than other universities they’d worked with.” That “deep dive,” she adds, dealt with such issues as timing — whether the students should intern as sophomores or rising juniors, and how many years they would be able to intern.

“We had another company come to us through the government affairs pipeline (to discuss government-academic partnerships) that we had not talked with before about recruiting,” Aschmann continues. “They asked us if it was better to work on developing relationships with faculty members or getting direct help from the Center for Career Development. In talking to the center, they were emphatic about them doing both; they needed to explore more ways to engage and really get to know the students I encouraged they hear from. Nothing replaces the close relationship with a faculty member involved in research with a lab, and with the students doing that research. On the flip side, you have to have brand recognition on campus and do that higher-profile information day. Job expo sponsorship with the center is important, too.”

Multi-layered approach

While responding “early and often” to the desires expressed by industry partners is a must, it also helps to have a well thought out strategy and program, and the UGA approach to talent recruitment through its Student Industry Fellows program is incredibly detailed and layered, as seen in the earlier discussion of the first pillar. The second pillar, Engagement Programming, includes bringing corporate executives on campus.

“We set up six or seven events each semester. The most recent one was a private working session with Arthur Blank (owner of the Atlanta Falcons and of Home Depot fame),” he says. “You spend an hour and 15 minutes just having the chairman tell you what skills he looks for. We also get the students involved in several of our Innovation District Summits, designed around conversations with C Suite representatives talking about where they see talent going and what skills they need.”

The third pillar, the Executive Development Program, “uses a lot of the assessment tools our industry partners are using,” says Potter. “For example, the DISC Assessment by Larsen Consulting (used to improve teamwork, communication and productivity) is the same one used in industry.” Cotter adds that a fourth pillar is planned, which will involve building a board of executives to provide regular feedback.

The UGA program, as do others, also pays close attention to specific areas of engagement, such as curriculum development. “From the skill development side, curriculum is 100% indexed to those skills,” Potter says. “Each fall semester when we launch, we run a fellows retreat — two days of advanced skill training.” These sessions include pitching persuasion skills, project management, and data visualization, as well as “human centered” skills such as empathy, problem identification, ideation prototyping, researching and testing.

At UW-Madison, whether it’s curriculum, experienced faculty, or staff with industry backgrounds, “all are important” when it comes to engaging effectively around talent development, adds Garnetti. “We do have plenty of faculty with very specific experience, many of whom are world leaders, and many with industry experience.” In fact, he adds, “the university was intentional in bringing me in — someone with industry experience. You need to be able to advocate for corporate partners when you have these conversations. You’re almost playing translator in order to see the alignment of goals. Here, there’s a lot of alignment, especially at the higher levels.”

When it comes to curriculum, he continues, “it’s how we market the unique value proposition of our students,” he says. “I didn’t have a fraction of what they have at age 19 or 20. In addition to their majors, a lot of them have double majors.”

Accordingly, he says. “we look at how to bring in skill sets. We engage in those conversations with industry — what are their talent needs? Whether it’s part of the coursework or something a student seeks outside their major, they get these skills; we want to be as future-proof as possible for their careers.”

Another key element in “selling” the students to industry partners, he notes, is developing strong relationships with the students as well. “My simple advice is to be present, invest time in your students, let them get to know you as an organization, what you stand for, and what working at XYZ company will look like,” he says. “In terms of getting to know them, let them tell you their career and personal goals. Students respond to that genuine interest.”

“Of course, we love to [have industry partners] contribute to curriculum development, and we’re increasing our work with companies who are curious about working with curriculum,” adds Aschmann. “Some have said initially that they wanted to contribute, but they had not necessarily worked with faculty members yet.”

Another area she hopes to build out is staff with industry experience. “It would be a counterpoint to my office, which is very much generalists and working with a subject matter expert,” she explains. “It would be great for me to be able to identify where we need to connect a company on campus, but to also have an ongoing relationship with a person to whom I can hand off — a counterpoint in the Office of Research who can really have a more technical conversation with the company. Someone who is certainly interested in research, but who also understands that it leads to a student potentially joining the workforce; that’s very valuable. That’s more than just PhD expertise — it comes from working in industry. They know how [companies] work, what ROI is, and they are able to truly collaborate with industry and find a lot of value in those partnerships.”

In Rae’s experience, “the curriculum is difficult to change; it takes time and a lot of effort. I see a lot of interest in non-degree courses. We have a group that sits in offices next to me called the Center for Industrial Excellence; they work with companies on in-service training. When somebody takes over a company, for example, we bring people up to speed on quality management.”

“Student recruiting is a big one,” says Small. “We work closely with the Career Design Center, who set up visits for companies that come to host information sessions and interviews. I work with them to engage in certain departments if the company has really specific needs. It’s so much more than a resume they look at now; you’ve got to engage with companies on campus.”

With so many options open to industry partners, she continues, “we tell industry they need to get involved early and know what’s out there.” For example, she cites two programs companies likely are not aware of that might interest them. “They are the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program and the Erie County Summer Youth Employment Program — both need-based,” she shares. “Students up to age 21 can apply, and if they’re accepted, they’re guaranteed a job. We’ll partner with the company, bring them to our research lab, and they’ll get hands-on experience. Some students love it — and if they don’t, it’s great to know that now. Every year I try to get industry to participate in those programs; they can host students to maybe help around the office or do a little lab project. It’s been really successful.”

How are we doing?

Seeking feedback from the industry partner is not just important at the start of the relationship; corporate relations executives agree it’s critical to get that feedback — both internally and externally — throughout the partnership. “We ask very early on, what does success look like in this partnership?” says Garnetti. “Once we decide what success looks like, we can build goals. We certainly have milestones, but they’re developed in collaboration with our partners, because not any two relationships are the same.”

The key, he adds, is finding a “happy middle ground working on the same goals, and how to execute in way that is a positive experience on both sides. Milestones, goals, and outcomes will come out of that understanding of success.”

“We have metrics as part of our strategic plan,” says Potter. “A high-level metric for all fellows and staff is the net promoter score we receive from project sponsors; that’s the primary metric.”

“We have face to face meetings or use Zoom, which is convenient because people do not have to travel,” says Rae. “First of all, you have to have your expectations matched to start off — and written down, because people change on both sides.”

In addition to setting specific short-term milestones, “we also do an economic impact survey (a canvas of companies) every year. What has the impact been for you in terms of increased benefits — revenue, cost reduction, jobs preserved; is the program working for you?” he adds. “It’s part of the deal with NYS.”

“We do a count every year of the number of internship positions certain companies sponsor, as well as full-time positions hired,” says Aschmann. “We also have an externship (job shadowing) program, which can involve a couple of hours a week to see if the student is interested in an industry. Usually, alumni in the companies will host students on-site, and we’ll also count the number of externships offered a year.” She also seeks feedback from faculty, she adds.

And what about feedback from the industry partners? “A lot has to do with their activity on campus,” notes Aschmann. “We have conversations with them; what’s been helpful, what hasn’t? Are they really engaged? Are they doing things they thought they might do? What I love is if I’ve not heard from them in three or four months and then learn they’ve been super involved in a specific program, and that relationship has really taken off. They’re happy, they’re engaged; that’s where we want to be.”

And what if that’s not the case? “Then you have to deal with it,” says Rae. “Our problems never get better if we do not deal with them. You have to deal with it straight away and take corrective action.”

Contact Aschmann at 713-348-4361 or leah.aschmann@rice.edu; Garnetti at 608-263-8664 or john.garnetti@wisc.edu; Potter at 706-542-7926 or andrew.potter@uga.edu; Rae at alanrae@buffalo.edu; and Small at sksmall@buffalo.edu u