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Input from industry partners helps identify gaps in student skills

Excerpted from the April 2023 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

Interfacing with and ultimately hiring talented university students has risen to the top of industry’s “most wanted” list, and university industry engagement programs have been happy to oblige. But no program is perfect, and there are nearly always “gaps” in student skills and qualifications industry partners would like to see filled. How do they learn about these gaps, and work with schools to fill them most effectively?

“Primarily through our Executive Board,” says Wil Dyer, director of the Corporate Affiliates Program, or CAP, at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego (UCSD). “CAP is one of the largest [of its kind] in the country, with 80 corporate partners that have quarterly board meetings. At those meetings we always solicit input as to what we can do as an engineering school to better work with industry — and often that comes down to student talent.”

“The nice thing is that talent is probably one of the foremost aspects of our partnerships,” says Mark Schmidt, PhD, associate vice chancellor for partnerships at North Carolina State University.

And at the University of Mississippi it all starts with communication. “In my role, it’s really asking [partners] for their feedback and having an ongoing dialogue,” says Hughes Miller, director of industry engagement at Ole Miss — a comment echoed by other corporate engagement leaders.

“We get feedback all the time about relevant skills students need to have,” notes Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah.

“Our relationship is bringing [partners] in to talk about what innovations and skill sets students [need to] bring to their companies, and how that plays out in the corporate world,” adds Rhonda l. Schuldt, director of the Big Idea Center in the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, through which 1,500 students a year participate in “immersive student entrepreneurial activities.”

“We have a corporate engagement team that goes out visiting with partners and getting a sense of where evolution is heading in our various industries,” says Amy Novak, EdD, president of St. Ambrose University. “We also have advisory committees at most colleges, which are constructive in all our disciplines to be as current and relevant as possible.”

Options are virtually unlimited

In addition to ongoing discussions with industry partners, corporate engagement leaders have crafted a number of programs specifically geared at getting feedback from industry partners on the skills they want to see in students, as well as areas in which the university can improve. For example:

  • St. Ambrose annually sponsors its “Innovation Summit,” through which industry partners have communicated, for example, what they consider to be the most important skills, the top trends in industry, and changes students need to be prepared to make in order to ensure future value as employees.
  • In Utah D’Ambrosio is seeking “more substantive” co-ops and internships in response to industry comments that students need more preparation in the “basics” of office work and culture — filing forms, sending e-mail, and so on. He is also trying to do more workshops — either in or outside the classroom — to help bridge that gap.
  • At NC State, “we keep hearing from industry that they want people ready to work, ready to be a team, ready to be accountable,” notes Schuldt. “Those are things that innovation and entrepreneurship provide; we provide that fertile ground.” Her unit’s “fertile ground” includes educational programming, competitions, and industry mentors.

Schmidt, who has prior industry experience, says his team engages in many ways, including direct questions around partners’ talent needs, and “thoughtful” strategies developed with partners to better immerse them in the university and express those needs. “This can allow them to state what they need and show what they need through forums, events, courses, lectures, and engaging with faculty,” he explains.

  • The University of Mississippi recently unveiled a program intended to address a workforce shortage and a lack of diversity in the insurance industry by partnering with agents, brokers, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). (See March UIEA for the details.) It involves a certificate program which guaranteed accessibility and affordability while ensuring that people of color could dive into the insurance job market quickly, which serves both a diversity goal and helps the insurance companies avoid a looming ‘workforce cliff.’ Ole Miss has also addressed issues such as department size, new degree programs, and curriculum.
  • At the Jacobs School, corporate talent acquisition leaders were asked to join a meeting that traditionally only included corporate executives. “So, we had both engineers talking about skillsets and what may be lacking, and talent professionals who were more versed on what companies already do with universities to recruit students,” Dyer explains.

Responding to partners

Industry engagement leaders are taking the feedback from industry partners to heart. For example, at the Jacobs School, “we have synthesized about five or six different ideas — themes that came from [the meeting],” Dyer shares.

While these ideas are so fresh that they had not yet been presented to the Dean as of this writing, they were well thought out concepts related to desired skills, gleaned from industry partners. They include:

  • Teamwork and leadership: Employers want students who are “able to be part of a team and having leadership in teams, because in industry you are constantly working in teams,” Dyer explains. “Whether or not you’re a born leader, you can be taught to lead a team.”
  • Making sure the curriculum has flexibility to incorporate industry needs: The goal here is to have, say, 10% to 15% flexibility in the curriculum to start — for example, with room to educate students in AI, or for industry representatives to talk about use cases.
  • More ways to engage students earlier: This would involve earlier identification of promising talent among students coming into UCSD, Dyer explains, including putting in place different ways to support students from different backgrounds.
  • More project-based learning: “We have a lot of capstones, but we can get more of those, and get more students formally through coursework earlier,” says Dyer. “For example, we’ve built an entire maker studio that every single student has to go through; that was industry driven.”
  • Supporting less popular fields: Employers mentioned fields such as customer support and quality assurance as perhaps being overlooked, and engagement leaders can work with industry partners to educate students about opportunities in certain underappreciated areas that are of particular interest.

The current work is building on previous efforts stemming from a question posed several years ago by the Jacobs School Dean, who asked research leaders: What is the next big thing we need to do to be more a relevant engineering school for industry?

“We thought about ethics, sustainability, scalability — all these sorts of things that are not in your traditional systems engineering . . . but which check 21st century boxes,” he says. “From there, we created a subcommittee of folks who really wanted to raise their hands — about a dozen executives from biotech to high-tech, to government defense and aerospace, oil and gas. We talked through this, met half a dozen times, got case studies, and wrote creative white papers. Then, in addition, we created a faculty subcommittee — from all six engineering departments. We’d get case studies from industry, and [we asked] how we could implement these things into the curriculum — what we would take, what we would leave out.”

At the end of this process, they had a white paper, which was followed by the hiring of a faculty director in early 2020 to lead the industry-focused curriculum development effort. “Since then, he’s been building up the program, shaping curriculum, and this fall through spring of 2024 the first pilot group of folks is going to take this curriculum,” says Dyer.

Summit spawns certificate programs

St. Ambrose is already taking a number of concrete steps following last year’s Innovation Summit, focused on both curriculum development and closing gaps in skills identified by industry partners.

“Skills specifically [identified] from Innovation Summit are informing curricula,” says Novak. She plans to spend this year working with faculty to incorporate the industry feedback in curricula and to equip them with how to actually teach what was outlined in the “Summit” feedback. (For more details, see the story about the Innovation Summit in the July 2022 issue of UIEA, page 104.)

“We also used the Summit to judge where skills gaps were in the mainline workforce,” she continues. “When I look to the next decade, where are the skills gaps and what strategies can we leverage between business and industry and us to do upskilling and re-skilling certificates that help equip the current labor force members for the evolution of industry decades ahead.”

For a long time, she explains, the school relied on master’s programs to do that, “but what I find is there is some specialization where it takes a certificate in data infrastructure or AI, or advanced manufacturing, or new programming language that does not necessarily require 36 hours, but ‘just in time’ learning for high-level responsiveness. We will launch 50 certificates in July in response to these areas industry identified as areas of concern.”

In addition, the university is redoing its entire business college core curriculum. “This also comes out of industry feedback — how we can be attentive to the ways students can demonstrate specific skills and competencies in what is not part of the traditional business curriculum,” says Novak. “One theme will be innovation — what do we mean [by innovation]? How do you learn that? What does good innovative practice look like? What does good innovative leadership look like? We’re really trying to pull together a couple of key themes, already informed by the business community.”

All of this, she explains, operates within a multi-pronged approach that fosters learning across a life span, all aimed at “how to build infrastructure from the university perspective to allow that ongoing learning to just keep happening.” The vision, she continues, involves building a lifelong learning approach into all levels — including the undergraduate experience. “Someone working in a hospital, for example, starts with a certificate, scaffolds to an associate degree, then bachelors, and on up,” she offers. “Or someone who is 50 is stuck at one level of the organization unless they get additional knowledge in their core area; they may pick up six hours of work on a tech certificate, and that’s all they ever do.”

Programs reflect industry practice

It was the desire to address a need brought to his attention by an industry partner that led to the insurance certificate program at Ole Miss, Miller shares. “And with another company we work with in a couple of ways, there was keen interest in one department growing and in new degree programs. As we grew and added a cluster, faculty talked about having the opportunity for some of their technical teams meeting and engaging with [industry partners], so they could share from the workforce side what pain points and challenges there are.”

As ideas about new programs and curricula develop and roll out, he continues, “industry can by no means dictate what we do — we’re an educational institution — but we want to make sure it has value and resonates to what’s happening in practice,” says Miller. “So we collaborate and get feedback as we put new programs together.”

He also points out that not every industry recommendation is appropriate for Ole Miss. “At times they’ve brought to us [ideas] that do not fit within the scope of what we offer,” he explains. “One CEO with a local manufacturer had a talent pipeline shortage and a hard time filling roles. We had a conversation, but at the end of the day it was better suited if offered by a community college. You’ll always have that conversation, but at the end of the day not everything industry brings to you will apply.”

And not all talent development efforts focus on a degree or certificate. At Utah, for example, some of the focus is placed more heavily on developing student portfolios. “We have a lot of students who dabble in entrepreneurship, but what I want them do is create a portfolio for themselves to show employers they know how to do what [is taught] in class,” says D’Ambrosio. “I’ve talked with different alumni who say, ‘I learned about engineering, but not how to be an engineer;’ that’s the implementation piece,” he shares. “When a student can say, ‘I built a website,’ or did a financial projection, or built a prototype, they can show the employer they can do that. We’ve done a lot of experiential programming to give students portfolio engagement on campus, and [industry] professionals come here and see students do things in really good way; they want to find those top students and get them engaged in their companies.”

He has taken several additional steps to meet needs identified by industry partners. For example, “our engagement in curriculum creating experiential opportunities happens in all four years, rather than for six months,” he says.

In addition, D’Ambrosio offers workshops on practical skills such as how to use Quickbooks, using Google Sketch-up to design 3D processes, operating 3D printers, creating financial projections, and using Adobe Cloud — “real tools,” he asserts. “I teach entrepreneurs how to us Shopify, how to use Google Analytics tools to measure your website, and how to use SEO.”

Occasionally, he adds, he will also bring in people from industry — not only to discuss in real time what’s happening in the market, but sometimes to aid in teaching how to use those tools, often leading workshops with no tuition charge.

“We try to look at things specifically through the voice of our partners and from an industry perspective,” adds NC State’s Schmidt. “Where there is momentum relative to needs, [we work] internally to hire faculty with the ability to teach that and communicate to faculty in terms of coursework and how it’s taught.”

Can success be measured?

How do these industry engagement leaders determine if the changes they have implemented in response to industry talent needs are working?

“At the end of the day, metrics for this kind of program are a really hard thing to measure on a broad scale,” says Schuldt. “One is how many student start-ups there have been; that’s success for the student. What we’re trying to track now — and we’re just starting this — is what those who do not do a start-up do; how did [the program] influence their career and what they did next? We’re not able to capture that yet.”

Part of what has been learned to date, she shares, comes from anecdotal stories. “We’ve talked to a few students who have moved on and are big successes — ‘I got some amazing job opportunities because of what I did [here].’ That’s a huge success factor for us — finding better opportunities. Another is that for those who go through the entrepreneurial and innovation process, it opens their eyes to other possibilities they might not have considered.”

Having students from different disciplines work in teams has also paid off, she continues. “One business student ended up with a large consulting firm doing tech consulting,” she reports. “They said, ‘I would never have been qualified for that had I not worked on a project with a team of engineers.’”

D’Ambrosio agrees that much of the feedback is anecdotal. “There are two things I measure,” he reports. “One, when a student comes back and says, ‘I have three job offers and I was able to pick this one because I was able to talk about what I saw myself doing; I love my job.’ Or, when an employer comes in and says, ‘I need more students like that!’ Employers are wanting those skills and attitudes. I’ve also learned that because of the continuously evolving nature of things, employers want students who want to continuously improve themselves — students who will bring new ideas and tools to us.”

And of course, the communication with industry partners never ends. “I’m busy [meeting] with business and industry all the time,” says Novak. “I just came from a lunch meeting where I said, ‘I know you hired four of our graduates in accounting; what do you see as gaps, and what do you see as really shining here? What do you see as challenges for your employee base?’”

Setting expectations with partner companies, adds Hughes, is also critical to having a successful relationship when it comes to talent. “We’re not a staffing or hiring agency; you cannot expect us to immediately fill jobs,” he offers. “Sometimes industry has a different view, and part of our responsibility is changing that perspective. We can be a resource, but many times companies will call up because they’re not meeting a hiring quota and not fulfilling needs — and that may be the only way they’ve reached out to you.”

Still, notes Schmidt, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of meeting industry needs when it comes to student talent — which can be a valuable open door to more collaboration. “I’d say that access to talent is the gateway to the broadest partnerships,” he says.

Contact D’Ambrosio at 801-585-3844 or; Dyer at 858-256-5082 or; Miller at 901-490-0622 or; Novak at 563-333-6213, or; Schuldt at 412-624-3157; and Schmidt at 919-215-4577, or