A Successful University-Corporation Partnership Requires Institutional AgilityJoanne Goldstein | Associate Vice President for Workforce Development and Employer Engagement in the College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University
There is a huge divide between what corporations need in their workforce, both new and existing, and the training and education their employees have received. One contributor to this dynamic is the gradual dissolution of in-house training by employers. The time when employers structured the work place to include sustained meaningful training is by and large a distant memory. Further, because the economy has changed dramatically over the past decades, it has been hard for higher education to keep up with the demands of the marketplace. As corporations focus more on their core business, they rely on external sources to train their workforce and to bolster the skills and knowledge of their employees. They also look outward for their research and development, ancillary projects and technical expertise. As a result, businesses are increasingly looking to academic institutions to offer education and skills development to their employees. Academic institutions, hungry for more students and revenue, are more than willing to meet this growing need.
What, then, are the keys to a successful partnership between industry and higher education? What can and should the university do to ensure it becomes the preferred educational provider for a particular sector or individual company? Strong academic leadership, a supportive administration and faculty, and the willingness to listen and adapt are the key elements in not only a successful, sustainable corporate-academic partnership, but a successful and sustainable graduating workforce.
There are a number of steps and strategies a university can follow.
First, the university should acknowledge that a partnership with industry is not intuitive. For decades, industry and higher education have proceeded on very different models, with different goals and outcomes as well as different cultures. The university needs to put in place a team and a strategy that will overcome the cultural and communications divide and be ready to problem solve when issues arise. Not only will this resolve any roadblocks reached, but it gives industry confidence that the university is serious about the partnership and prepared to fully implement it. Of equal value, it offers confidence and support to the university participants, both academic and administrative, who may not be experienced at industry partnerships.
Second, the university should plan on a long-term strategic partnership. The temptation to create a plan that leads to short-term benefits and makes an immediate splash should be resisted. Further, even when the goal of the relationship is to provide educational opportunities to the company’s incumbent workers, the partnership will be more sustainable if it provides for multiple components and embraces other parts of the university. For example, including other benefits such as a co-op program for students, research opportunities, collaboration toward developing innovative products or involvement with other university departments all enrich the university experience and increase the likelihood of a successful partnership.
Once the connection is established, it’s imperative the academic team really listen to the company’s workforce needs. In order to have the right alignment between the educational opportunities and the skill sets needed by the employer, the university must listen and be responsive to what makes the most sense for the employer.
The university should also earmark dedicated personnel for the partnership and identify one contact person for all of the organization’s needs. This is a very critical component of a partnership that will survive and flourish beyond the initial bumps in the road. The ability of the company to reach out to one person and know that any issues will be directed to the right party and that there’s follow through is key. Additionally, a student liaison is important since the employee/student may have additional issues that are different from those of the employer.
Finally, the academic institution has to not only provide institutional and leadership support for the corporate partnership, but has to be nimble in its implementation. The newness of the relationship and the difference in pace between a university and a corporation should be considered.
Higher education has the opportunity, the infrastructure and the intelligence to become a meaningful and sustainable partner for businesses. Taking these steps can fast-track the process.