It’s a tale of two tales. Companies are scrambling to find qualified employees, but as complex technology creeps into almost every kind of operation, businesses moan about the time spent bridging the gap between college graduates’ textbook smarts and the skills they need to succeed in real-world situations. For an increasing number of New Jersey educational institutions, the answer has been to open the gates of the ivory tower and bring in business resources. Conversations with both sides indicate that it’s a win-win solution.
When the Rutgers Center for Supply Chain Management was launched more than a decade ago, “it was built on a combination of academic rigor and input from industry,” according to John Impellizzeri, a Rutgers Business School assistant professor of supply chain management and director of the center. “That combination, which includes a focus on areas like robotics, artificial intelligence and blockchain is important, especially in supply chain management.”
Many of the SCM courses offered by Rutgers were designed with input from the SCM’s advisory board, which Impellizzeri chairs, and reflect input from industry representatives from pharmaceutical, consumer product, technology and other companies, he added.
“Our Center for Supply Chain Management has an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on New Jersey’s economy and strengthen the diverse business community through this project,” noted Lei Lei, the dean of Rutgers Business School. “We look forward to the results that will come from this powerful collaboration with government and private business.”
Other institutions of higher education have also embraced business partnerships. The Ramapo College Pathways Program, administered through the Cahill Career Development Center, provides resources and prepares students to apply to internships, graduate or professional school and/or to enter the job market. Completion of the Pathways Program is a degree requirement.
LaQuan Norman is the director of the center, which has a “13-member employer advisory board – representing accounting, consumer goods, electronics, health care and other firms – that formally meets three times a year, and more frequently on an informal basis, to discuss developing issues,” she said. “Industry trends affect our coursework development, which helps prepare students to enter the market.”
Adds Ramapo Professor of Computer Science Scott Frees, who also leads the college’s Center for Data, Mathematical, and Computational Sciences, “Companies typically tell us how impressed they are with the ‘hands-on’ skill our graduates already possess. We offer a unique focus on technical programming skills so our students can hit the ground running as software engineers. Our faculty members stay in touch with businesses and industry representatives, and faculty members also have experience as consultants, so the curriculum stays fresh even though the field is evolving quickly.”
Different institutions have blazed their own trails. The College of New Jersey, for example, maintains a Dean’s Advisory Council at the School of Business, made up of a group of business alumni from all major disciplines who offer advice, according to Dean Kathryn Jervis, who is also a professor of accounting. “We also have an MBA Advisory Board,” she explained. “We interact with them, so our programs continue to meet students’ needs and business needs while remaining competitive with peer institutions.”
She noted that, in addition to technical skills, “Employers tell us they want new graduates to also have good writing and Excel skills, so we’ve baked those into our courses, too. And analytics is extremely important for every major, especially accounting.”
At Monmouth University, “Strategic planning, curriculum review and revision are key to keeping our business courses updated and relevant,” according to Raj Devasagayam, dean of the university’s Leon Hess Business School and professor of marketing and international business.
“We listen to students and alumnae, and past and potential employers,” he said. “At Monmouth University, we also get valuable input from the Leon Hess Business Council, where more than 30 professionals from a variety of industries provide support and advice on matters relating to academic programs, student development, social responsibility, and strategic planning.”
Deb Clay, a former New York Life Insurance Co. vice president, chairs that council, and she pointed out that it’s not unusual for businesses to invest two or more years bringing new employees up to speed; but thanks to business-influenced coursework and “experiential” learning, including internships, “Monmouth University students can hit the ground running, and are even more valuable to employers.”
Monmouth University recently restructured its curriculum to provide more flexibility for students, while meeting business requirements, according to Nancy Uddin, an associate accounting professor and chair of the institution’s department of accounting. “I speak with companies that recruit from our school, and noted that accounting firms, for example, are hiring more people with computer skills. So, we’re letting students take more electives, which means that accounting students can learn more about computers, while IT students can learn more about accounting, for example. Business processes are changing, and students need to be adaptable; and we’re helping them to prepare for this.”
Business-college partnerships are baked into the model at Kean University, according to Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs David Birdsell. “At Kean, we believe strongly in developing academic programs that meet market needs, and there’s no better way to do that than to stay in regular touch with leadership in all of the industries that employ our graduates and host our interns,” he noted.
That approach is evident at Kean University’s College of Business and Public Management, where Dean Jin Wang taps into a board composed of representatives from different companies to “establish a partnership between the college and the business community,” he said. “We have established a number of subcommittees that consider issues like the strategic development of course curriculum, and some board members also mentor students.”
Kean marketing students, for example, have collaborated with organizations like the New York Jets, which adopted one of their suggestions; and the university has also established panels that focus on ESG and other issues. “Businesses tell us there is a great shortage of certain analytical and other skills,” said Wang. “So we’re preparing our students with both short-term knowledge skills and long-term competencies that will help them to compete in the marketplace of today and in the future”
Thomas Edison State University serves a “diverse population, where most students are older,” according to TESU President Merodie Hancock. “They’re in a different place, compared to many other students. But TESU was founded, 50 years ago, in complete alignment with a career orientation, with a mission of filling in the gaps, especially for adult students. So we’ve always balanced the academic approach with the practitioner’s approach.”
She noted that the university routinely “consults with academic experts, people from the field, and we do our own research,” to determine what skills businesses are looking for. “We had a nuclear-energy program, and now we’re examining wind, with hydrogen next, since those are the directions that the industries are moving towards. In the technology field, the world changes so fast, and we work with industry to be sure the tech we’re focusing on is what is being used the job. It’s a back-and-forth process that keeps our knowledge timely.”
Students need better quantitative analytics in areas like finance and MIS (management information sciences),” according to Mercadien Managing Director and Managing Principal Myron Gellman, who earned his bachelor’s degree at The College of New Jersey. “They need to be able to analyze numbers and tell someone else what they mean in plain English, and it helps to have writing and Excel skills, not just theoretical knowledge. They’re all smart but if they get these and other skills early on, it helps the employee and their employers throughout their career.”
Mercadien recruits “from a number of colleges, including TCNJ,” he added. “At TCNJ, we provide feedback on what graduates need so they’ll be better aligned with the marketplace when they graduate.”
Kathleen Walsh is a chief of staff at GitHub, a Microsoft-owned company that is a platform where more than 100 million developers “shape the future of software.” She also sits on the advisory board for the Center for Data, Mathematical, and Computational Sciences at Ramapo College of New Jersey (a Ramapo Computer Science graduate, she is an adjunct professor of data and AI ethics there). “Universities are hotbeds of talent and ideas,” she said. “When companies like GitHub partner with colleges, we can help to draw attention to supplemental skillsets that will aid students throughout their career.”
Walsh, in particular helps students to “tell their story” when they interact with others. “At work, a lot of people use charts and graphs to try to describe their project and other ideas, but they can get bogged down in the details without offering a clear idea of what they want to accomplish and why anyone should care,” she noted. “Being able to explain to people why I was doing something has helped me a lot in leading cultural change at organizations, as well as large-scale enterprise innovation efforts. At Ramapo, I help students to see how they can tell their story not only with data, but traditional storytelling techniques. Stories are 22% more impactful than facts because they are memorable, impactful, and personal. Great storytelling is about connecting – and I want students to not only master the science of data, but also the art of communicating it”.
As a technologist who had built a business war game for the U.S. Army and a filmmaker who has made augmented reality experiences, a stop-motion Lego short and other movies, Walsh draws on her own proficiencies to give students storytelling examples. “Ramapo encourages a hands-on approach to its courses,” she added. “When you can offer students theory from the classroom and combine that with real-world experience, the students win, the companies that hire them win, and the school wins”i