Working Together to Add Value Beyond Boundaries
In today’s fiercely competitive marketplace, corporate leaders need to consider every available resource when mapping out a successful plan for economic growth. Typically, companies look to universities as a source for interns or new hires, but it’s easy to forget that many colleges can offer so much more to support business strategies.
Corporations often have what is best termed as “transactional relationships” with universities — the company sends representatives to a career fair or holds a recruiting session on campus and returns with a stack of résumés, ready to fill spots on an organizational chart. Perhaps that relationship is enhanced slightly with some branding on campus, whether it’s signage in common areas or sponsorship of university-hosted events. While those efforts can yield a moderate level of success, a deeper involvement is sure to offer a much greater return on investment.
For example, did you know that corporations can often tap faculty members for subject-matter expertise when preparing proposals or evaluating different business propositions? Are you aware that campuses own cutting-edge equipment that can often be made available to industry partners?
Successful partnerships form when both parties take the time to learn more about their respective goals. Companies have specific needs when filling positions and that information should be shared with the appropriate departments at your local university. Do you need students who have both an electrical engineering degree and also experience working on a multidisciplinary team? It might seem surprising, but university leaders who truly want to partner with industry want to also hear your feedback so their graduates are ready for the workforce. Several avenues for providing this feedback exist, ranging from individual face-to-face meetings with deans, to a team approach on industry advisory boards.
For small businesses, universities can be excellent partners when pursuing Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) or Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants through the federal government. Universities can help fill technical gaps when assembling a winning proposal. I suggest contacting the university’s research office to see if an expert might be lurking on your local campus.
There are myriad creative ways to engage with universities. At Florida Tech, companies have provided real-world problems for students to solve during their capstone senior design classes. In return, they got a team of students essentially completing what could be considered a nine-month job interview, as the team met with company leaders and discussed their findings throughout the process. We’ve found these types of interactions meet both the corporate and academic goals: the organization gets research performed and interfaces with a self-selected group of students for an extended period of time, while the students gain practical experience and learn whether that company’s corporate culture is a good fit with their expectations.
Many universities offer continuing education and certificate programs for the corporate workforce. Often, the curriculum and timing of the classes can be coordinated to cause minimal disruption to the daily workflow while providing employees with the tools needed to be their most productive. Flexibility is key, and I encourage companies to sit with the appropriate administrators to find optimal solutions.
Once the corporate-academic relationship is established, continued cultivation is essential. To avoid falling back into a transactional mode, look for low-cost or no-cost ways to engage with your university. Advisory boards, mentoring programs and mock interview sessions all provide opportunities to strengthen the connection. Professors and students appreciate industry leaders who volunteer some time to address classes or student organizations. Conversely, university faculty members can address your employees on emerging technologies or other areas of interest. A true partnership is a relationship where all team members work together to achieve their respective goals.
One of the biggest obstacles to bringing a university into long-term corporate strategies is finding a starting point. Furthermore, even with a single point of contact, it’s easy to miss potential areas of connectivity since there are so many different departments and areas of expertise. I recommend contacting individuals who handle corporate relations for the university. These people can be found in the research office, in the development (philanthropy) office, in the student placement or career management office, or in the economic development office. Schedule meetings to learn more about how your company can benefit by bringing a university onto your team, and you’ll have gained a valuable partner to help you achieve your goals.
Gretchen Sauerman is the associate vice president for corporate sponsored programs at Florida Institute of Technology. She holds a master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering and has more than 20 years in business development roles for corporate aerospace, environmental and energy engineering enterprises.