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Universities grow programs for up-skilling and re-skilling industry partners’ employees

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

A number of universities have long-standing programs for employees of industry partners that enable them to enhance their skill sets and their career prospects, ranging from certificate programs to advanced degrees. More recently, however, with the advent of technological advances that threaten to leave many employees behind, combined with the prospects of severe talent shortages as far as the eye can see, industry has been requiring even more programs for employees whose skill sets no longer match the job requirements of the future — and universities have been responding.

“Technological disruptions have caused quite a shift in the kinds of solutions we are providing — especially by way of up-skilling and re-skilling workforces,” says Anna Koulas, MBA, vice president, Drexel Solutions Institute. While Drexel University has been providing custom training to partners for over two decades, the Drexel Solutions Institute was launched five years ago “to serve as a centralized unit to assist companies with tapping into the university’s broader resources,” she says.

“We’ve had a dedicated corporate training department for 20-plus years. The need came out of a lot of local companies who sent their employees to our open enrollment programs,” adds Brian Breen, chief corporate engagement and partnerships officer with UC-Irvine. “Today we see a much greater need for cohort-based, custom training specific to industry, the projects they run, and their nomenclature.”

He adds that a significant number of employees have sign on via the university’s public enrollment for up-skilling as well.

“The main and health sciences campuses at the University of Utah have historically offered up-skilling programs, as we’ve always recognized the importance of strengthening relationships with and meeting the needs of our industry partners,” says Patti Ross, MBA, CPA, chief corporate engagement officer at the University of Utah. “The pandemic, coupled with justified calls for a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive society, have reshaped our world in recent years. We’ve doubled down on seeking out partnerships and offering certificates and courses through several channels to meet growing demand.”

In addition, she adds, “we’ve honed our focus in an effort to be responsive to global challenges and the ever-changing backdrop of higher education, health care, and fast-paced technological developments, all of which require thoughtful and nimble consideration and implementation.” In fact, she adds, while the university’s well-known PIVOT Center continues to be a catalyst for innovation, “the newly created Office for Corporate Engagement further underscores the importance of all facets of industry partnerships to higher education.”

“Our Executive Education Program has been offered for over 60 years,” notes Julia Beckner, talent and career services consultant at The Ohio State University.

“The program has been very helpful in up-skilling and re-skilling,” adds Alissa Comella, OSU’s associate vice president of corporate partnerships, “but now we also have a center for automotive research and several other centers that do short courses. It helps keep pace with industry; there are increased expectations that universities can play a role in this, and not just look in the past.”

Programs cover many ‘bases’

There is as much variety among these programs as there is among the universities themselves. For example, Ohio State has created a graduate certificate in business leadership for Honda, at the company’s request. “They work with the Executive Education Department to understand what’s needed, and how it could fit with the employees,” explains Comella. “Students do projects specific to the company, like capstones. It’s very focused on Honda problems.”

The course is taught by faculty, she notes, but adds that the program could also involve clinical faculty from industry. “A lot of clinical faculty comes from industry — especially from the business school,” she explains.

Comella adds that “not everyone wants to go on for a full-time MBA, but for the ones that do a certain number of our courses count toward the MBA; that’s great for the university as well.”

“We have courses that lead to credits that can lead to a degree program or not,” adds Beckner. “We’ve done a good job defining the differences between certifications and those leading to degree programs. Industry has expressed strong interest in us being as agile and quick as possible.”

“There’s been a strong emphasis on certificates, stackable certificates, and micro credentials,” Comella shares. “Short-term [courses] are more agilely developed in response to the needs of industry.”

(Editor’s note: The Center for Automotive Research is one of the entities that creates continuing ed for industry. Their offerings are listed at The executive education program is run out of the Fisher College of Business —

Hot areas include digital skills

“Probably our biggest program is our digital skills bootcamp — from data analysis and visualization to UX/UI, cyber security, full-stack coding and digital marketing,” says David Vassar, PhD, assistant dean for professional and corporate programs at Rice University. The bootcamps, which have been run for about four years, were in response to industry demand from more than one partner, he says.

The bootcamps run for 24 weeks, with 10 hours a week of class time, along with homework and team projects. “They’re designed for working adults — all evening courses — with a skills-based approach,” says Vassar. “They’re all focused on the platforms they use, what they can empower them to do, and solving problems presented throughout the courses.”

Vassar says there has also been a lot of interest recently in project management skills, and Rice offers, for example, a course that is basically an introduction to this type of position. “It’s powerful for some of our partners to instill a project management approach for whatever they’re producing,” he explains. “We also offer agile project management as well as a ‘communications for project management’ course — the softer, interpersonal side.’’

These courses have been very popular with industry partners, he says. “Sometimes they pay for employees to enroll; sometimes they have somebody come onsite and train them.”

At UC Irvine, Breen reports, “for the most part our programs fall into three categories: Soft skills — everything from how to communicate in a business environment to business writing skills, leadership, to diversity; Project management/process improvement, like Six Sigma; and Technology — a lot of analytics, data, coding, EB development, and cyber. Then there are some one-off courses like contract management.”

The University of Utah offers opportunities through both the David Eccles School of Business and its Online and Continuing Education programs, notes Ross. “We offer free workshops, lectures, webinars as well as professional education courses and certificates and flexible classes for academic credit through our Online and Continuing Education program,” she says. (The list of courses can be found at

The School of Business offers two-day courses and certificates either on-campus, virtually, or on the partner’s premises (

“We are experiencing tremendous success with EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) and women’s certificates specifically,” she adds. “The women’s program helps fulfill company needs in their initiatives to support, promote, and grow more diversity in organizations, which we know is an ongoing challenge for many corporate partners. Attendees for online classes come from across the USA. On-campus is primarily Utah residents, with some driving in from surrounding states such as Wyoming, Idaho, and so on. Feedback from partners has been very positive and we experience repeat business from prior engagements, either with additional courses and/or through expanded demand across the company (for example EDI offerings company-wide). (To see a list of individual classes in Executive Education, go to

Ross adds that “we engage with companies such as Zions Bank, Intermountain Healthcare, University of Utah Hospital, UDOT, Myriad Genetics, and BioFire. We even had BYU send their full recruiters’ team to our EDI class.“

At Drexel, “some of our key training programs that are currently running include our longstanding custom MBA program that we have been offering to Vanguard and their Crew members, as well as a diversity supplier program for Merck,” Koulas notes. “In terms of workforce development, the university was awarded a PA Smart Grant earlier this year which supported a hospitality training program for those seeking to up-skill themselves to find employment within the food and hospitality industry.”

Working with partners

The universities that run these programs say that ongoing communications and interactions with industry partners are critical to their success. “We have a very rigorous process explaining things to our partners; it’s why we’re successful,” says Breen. “We focus our talks on learning and developing [a relationship with] the executives in charge. The partners may state, ‘Here is where we are with the employee, and here’s where we want them to get to.’” Most importantly, he adds “what’s the ROI and knowledge transfer that are really important to our corporate partners? How can we track what’s happened in the classroom, and how it will impact them performing in their jobs?”

In order to get to those data, “after procuring a contract, we perform a pre-training assessment, sometimes surveying all participants and the management team about where they feel improvements need to be, and where the up-skilling needs be,” he says.

Facilitators come from an established pool “for almost any topic,” notes Breen. “They are very versed in going onsite, tweaking the content, targeting to an industry or company, and teaching on the fly. We recruit these practitioners through advisory boards and contacts with industry; most instructors come from former partners.”

As the pre-training assessment is concluded, “we have really great conversations with the champion and instructor,” he adds. “The [companies] feel comfortable about their background and know what they’re paying for.”

From there the program is launched — anywhere from an eight-hour course to a full certificate — up to 150 hours. “We’re very flexible with what the client needs,” says Breen. “At the end we normally have a capstone type project, often unique to that company, and a presentation in front of the stakeholders. Buy-in at that level is enormous.”

Following the project’s conclusion, an immediate post-assessment is conducted including students, notes from champions on how things went, and notes to clients. “We also do three-month and six-month surveys on where up-skilling occurred and their roles in the company,” he reports. “In addition, we sometimes offer one-on-one coaching with the practitioner and employees so we can track growth, and where the up-skilling is occurring. That’s usually in the leadership area.”

“We engage in focused conversations with industry partners to ensure we understand the challenges they are facing,” says U of Utah’s Ross. “We review course curriculum in advance and give the company a voice in curriculum design to ensure we are addressing specific challenges and opportunities. Similarly, we engage in a deep dive with attendees after class to ensure learning objectives were achieved while seeking input for improvement.”

In terms of engaging with new companies, she adds, “we have invited industry-specific organizations to day-long workshops to describe what training their workforce needs. This is of critical importance given the rapidly evolving technical and global landscapes.”

“We meet with our partners throughout the length of a program; obviously a lot of time is spent in advance to make sure it is well designed,” adds Koulas. “The key is that we act as an extension of the organization’s learning team. Depending upon whether it’s a credit-bearing course or a certificate, regardless of the length of program or the type, we are here to support our partners in any way. The more complex a solution, the more we may need to engage and involve our partners — however, we always think about the end deliverables.”

Both pre- and post-assessment have been built in as part of program design, she continues, allowing Drexel staff “to better understand the knowledge base going in, and the outcome. With these learning interventions — whether face to face, hybrid, or online — we’re able to see their impact on the firm.”

Working hand in hand

At the core of Drexel’s success with the employee training programs “is the fact that we work hand in hand with our partners, designing the learning outcomes they’re looking to achieve,” Koulas continues. “We think about the core competencies and skills required and map them back to the career projection of the participant. We’re always thinking about the actual mission and vision of the firm as well.”

For custom degree programs, “we take a pre-set accredited program and then infuse it with the elements that either look at specialization of the courses and/or the role of subject matter experts from the firm,” adds Koulas. “We do this to help ensure that what we’re teaching is truly impactful, and really does enable us to get a stronger ‘inner peek’ into any issues the firm is experiencing or challenges it’s facing — as well as the strategic vision of the partner organization. It’s critical that our partners are involved in the designing process of the curriculum. While the instruction comes from us, the return on investment is there because the partner is so invested in the process from the beginning and is actively engaged throughout.”

In terms of curriculum development, at Rice “we get input from industry. It’s not often we create new programs, but we get feedback and improve our courses that way. Sometimes we’ll co-create the course,” notes Vassar.

At present, he continues, he is working with Mental Health America Houston to create a new certificate for mental health specialists working alongside physicians. “In working to build the certificate they are providing the expertise, and we are providing the pedagogical and technological support,” he explains. “Once the course is pulled together, we market it, provide enrollment support, and financial administration. That’s pretty typical.”

“Our executive education group reviews everything with our industry partners on a regular basis, tweaking and adjusting the program,” Comella says of Ohio State’s process. “Some of them debrief with the industry partner every year — what worked, what didn’t. It’s essential to keep your programs relevant.”

Measuring program success

The numerous assessments the universities conduct clearly give an indication of client and student satisfaction, but what other measurables are used to determine if programs have been successful?

“I’d say by the length of the partnerships,” says Koulas. “For example, the Vanguard program has been running for over eight years — making it a very successful program. The same can be said for Merck, for whom we run multiple programs. These cannot be ‘one and done’ partnerships. We often think about repositioning programs, so they’ll always be refined. We also think about future space and what else a partner may need. Is it really a singular solution that will fulfill their needs? Perhaps a different demographic or population? Are they able to retain those people? We think not just about the immediate, but also about career pathway — how to create longevity within an individual learner.”

Getting post-assessments from employers to gauge success can sometimes be a challenge. “A lot of times the clients like to keep things internal, [which makes it difficult] for us to know we’ve been successful as a training provider,” says Breen. “The point is, we know that’s the case when they come back for other training…. I have an amazing team of account managers. The key is relationship management — trust, honesty, transparency, having expectations, and addressing hiccups if there are any.”

Many of the companies Ohio State works with use retention as a key metric that can be boosted with up-skilling programs. “What they look for are employee retention rates,” says Comella. “Honda, for example, identifies high-potential employees; it’s a really competitive application process. If they do not get the tools and skills they need to continue to advance, we’ll be hearing about that for sure.”

“We use different methods of evaluation,” adds Beckner. “Initially there may be a ‘smiley face’ kind of review — did you enjoy the program? was the training effective? Then, there’s more quantitative evaluation toward the end of the process. For employers, there’s definitely strong process interest in these programs of professional development; retention is certainly important, so they become employee benefit and retention tools.”

Demand is high

Employers can’t seem to get enough of the up-skilling programs universities are offering. “We just had an event last week for our bootcamp alumni network,” shares Vassar. “JP Morgan Chase was the sponsor [and] the featured employer there; they put together a panel who were all in positions where they hire people. One of them was a bootcamp graduate and the other three were there because they wanted to hire bootcamp grads. They can’t get enough people with the skills they need.”

One area where he gets a lot of feedback is in the paralegal program run with law firms. “As part of our certificate program I got a note yesterday from the City of Houston that one of our graduates had moved on from them to a bigger and better job, and they came to us for another hire,” he says.

“Another area with some success is leadership programs,” he continues. “We’ve had a few representatives come in from NASA who have been very happy with the way we’ve been able to implement skill sets, teaching around self-awareness, leading teams, and conflict management.”

Touching other engagement areas

Oftentimes these successful training programs can help strengthen overall industry partnerships, either by interfacing directly with the corporate engagement department or by referring clients to other areas of possible engagement.

“Julia [Beckner] is our talent and career services consultant,” notes Comella. “Her job is to help companies navigate that entire area. When we have a new company just come into the area, she works with them to help develop their career talent playbook — how to help them connect with all the right people and programs.” One huge opportunity at present, she notes, is Intel, which recently announced a major investment in Ohio and for whom there is “a real push for making sure they have enough people, and that they’re trained in certain areas.”

The training programs could be an excellent add-on to an existing partnership as well. Industry partnerships “usually start with one dimension; it could be talent, research, or locating in the [innovation] district. Our goal is to help them understand the full breadth of how university engagement and partnering are mutually beneficial.” As part of that process, she adds, “we create business plans with our largest strategic partners, working together to develop what’s important — KPIs and specific initiatives.”

“Proctor & Gamble is a good example [of an expanding partnership],” adds Beckner. “Even though they were engaged in campus recruiting, experiential learning and internships, there was an opportunity for them to be more engaged and to understand those opportunities. I feel this was an example where research was able to build from talent. We meet on a regular basis to talk about different strategies to attract and engage industry on campus. Sometimes it does start with talent. Our team collaborates; we share that this company is really interested in one certain area, can we think of other potential opportunities?”

“Certainly, the concierge service we seek to provide deepens existing industry partnerships and creates terrific opportunities for new, deep, and broad relationships,” Ross comments. “We recognize that, not only for industry partners but for our alumni; we want to keep their connection to the University of Utah strong. We want to serve their educational and business needs as the economy, technology, and global landscape evolve.”

“Leah [Aschmann, Rice’s director of corporate and foundation relations] and others have worked hard and built out a full-service approach, although it’s still a struggle for universities to coordinate that across the breadth of offerings and disciplines we have,” says Vassar. “Having said that, industry partners like JP Morgan Chase now understand what the different parts of the university do; they’re engaged with us, with the school of engineering, and with the business school.”

He adds that he has been partnering with Aschmann over the past six months or so, talking with one company that is interested in hiring undergraduates and graduates, and is also interested in partnering with the School of Engineering in computer science and electrical engineering, looking to “bring in a lifetime learning and professional development component in very flexible ways.”

“While we go in as continuing ed, when we engage with a client we try to come in as UCI — especially if we’re having the first discussion with any with them,” says Breen. “We listen to their needs. We’re open to [saying] ‘Why not go to the business school, or the engineering school?’ Those conversations happen at times.”

However, like Vassar he recognizes things are not perfect. “Boeing is one of our long-term clients,” he shares. “One day I saw the executive director from our business school in their lobby. I asked what he was doing there, and he was having a meeting with the same person I was, half an hour later. We should always focus on what our partners need, and not silo.”

Intentional relationships

“We think about meeting the partner where they’re at along the continuum in an ongoing way,” adds Koulas. “Today’s needs may be different from tomorrow’s; we are very intentful in the way we listen. That’s intentional relationship development — if there’s something more we should be doing, something more they need, and what that might be to best support our partners.”

That type of approach, she says, has led to partnership expansions. “We always look at partnerships holistically — specifically in the areas of talent pipeline support by way of acquisition and custom training solutions, as well as opportunities for R&D synergy,” states Koulas. “If we support an organization in one area, we’re always thinking about ways in which we can broaden the partnership as a whole in other ways.”

You discover a lot more about each organization as you collaborate, she continues. “For example, talent solutions by way of creating custom degrees provide us with much better insight into the organization and their training needs. Products or services enable us to better understand what’s happening within their walls and to better identify the challenges/opportunities their industry will be facing so that we can best support them. That’s where research comes into play, and brokering those opportunities for collaboration in the research realm is also vital to our success.“

Contact Beckner at 614-292-2584 or; Breen at 949-824-1847 or; Comella at; Koulas at 215-571-3766 or; Ross at 801-550-5155 or; and Vassar at 713-348-6106, or