Area colleges take their cues from the real world.
by Shari Held
Upcoming grads can breathe a little easier. Their odds of snagging a job upon graduation, while not as good as five years ago, are certainly better than last year. Statistics compiled by the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the Collegiate Employment Research Institute show hiring in the Midwest region is up 7.7 percent compared to 10.2 percent overall. While Indiana falls short of the national average, the state is trending in the right direction. Furthermore, hiring is up in most industries.
Northwest Indiana graduates are already experiencing the benefits of that trend. For example, the overall placement rate for 2010-11 graduates (with a 91.2 percent response rate) was 96.1 percent, up 3.1 percent from the average placement rate of Valparaiso University graduates for the past five years.
Job postings also are up. “Last year at PNC there were about 70 registered employers; this year there are 103,” says Cynthia Roberts, Ph.D. and chair, Department of Business and Leadership, Purdue University North Central in Westville.
Giving employers what they want
Part of the reason grads are in demand is that they possess skills employers want: a solid base of knowledge in their chosen field, problem solving, flexibility, communication, obtaining and processing information, and planning and organization. They also want employees who are team players and quick learners.
“Colleges and universities are much more cognizant these days of what businesses are looking for,” says Roy Austensen, Ph.D. and acting dean, College of Business, Valparaiso University. “They are expecting us to get students ready to hit the ground running … and arrive fully prepared.”
Valparaiso University recently created a new campus-wide writing program to provide an organized support system for students with writing projects. “We put this into effect to make sure they can write and to be able to prove it,” Austensen says. Other colleges and universities are also ramping up writing requirements and availability of writing resources.
The core program at St. Joseph’s College puts students through “intense experiences” to address the skills employers seek. “When you talk about a leg up, our alums tell us this really makes a difference,” says F. Dennis Riegelnegg, Ph.D. and president of St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer. “We rely on this general education core program very heavily to give them high-level skills.”
Keeping the curriculum current
Educational institutions also are modifying their curriculums, emphasizing soft skills and creating new courses in anticipation of future job opportunities.
St. Francis University in Crown Point responded to a request from Franciscan Alliance, one of the largest employers in Crown Point, and will begin offering an associate’s degree in Clinical Lab Science in 2013.
“It is projected that there will be a major retirement wave in these clinical lab scientist positions,” says Matt Smith, Ph.D., and dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, St. Francis University-Crown Point. “Many hospitals even now are starting to see a shortage and are working to recruit students in this field.”
Franciscan Alliance and other area hospitals will host students as they complete their clinicals in the intensive hands-on curriculum. “We are happy to meet [hospitals' and businesses'] needs now and in the future for clinical lab scientists, and we are hoping this provides a career pathway for students,” Smith says.
St. Joseph’s recently added an MBA program, an athletic training program and a paramedic program. The paramedic program, based mainly in Lafayette along with its nursing program, has been in place for two years.
“It has been a rather successful program for us that grew out of a statewide need that we saw coming,” Riegelnegg says. St. Joseph’s year-old athletic program was developed in response to the expansion of sports facilities and the emphasis on sports and fitness.
The Department of Business and Leadership at PNC utilizes graduates’ and alumni feedback to help steer curriculum changes. “We ask them what they would have liked to have seen in the program, what they were really well-prepared for and what we should know going forward,” Roberts says. Recent additions to curriculum include experience in human resource information systems and a social media marketing and branding course.
PNC is nimble in responding. “Even though we are connected to the main Purdue system we are able, on the local level, to offer new and experimental things as we hear that there is a need for it,” Roberts says. This spring PNC rolled out a certificate in Organizational Administration. Designed specifically for non-business majors, it includes a smattering of budgeting, marketing and supervisory skills to make students more marketable.
The Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative has been a focus at St. Mary’s College in South Bend since the college received a $245,000 Small Business Administration grant to support women’s entrepreneurship. “Much of that initiative has involved external opportunities, like working with low-income women in the community, but a big chunk of it has also revolved around curriculum,” says Mary Ann Merryman, outgoing chair, Business Administration and Economics Department. “Entrepreneurship is a really hot area in business these days. Over the last couple years we’ve offered four brand new courses dealing in entrepreneurship.”
The one that’s garnered the most publicity has been the New Venture course where students learn how to launch companies and have the option of actually going on to start their own business. Student Hannah Hupp launched “Twist O’Luck,” a green-colored citrus soda that has been picked up by Notre Dame and other venues.
St. Mary’s also now offers a course in small business accounting systems for start-up companies and a small-business consulting course. One consulting team helped a hair salon integrate two software programs. “That saved the business owner hours of time every month by getting the information from one software package to talk to the other software package,” Merryman says.
Giving students a head start
Historically St. Joseph’s has sponsored networking receptions where senior business majors could meet alumni and business professionals. Based on the program’s success, the college expanded it to include students in all fields of study.
St. Joseph’s Puma Pro program facilitates two networking receptions – one in Chicago and one in Indianapolis – each year. “Many times students end up getting jobs, but even if they don’t, it gives them contacts they can use to create a network,” Riegelnegg says.
PNC professors rely upon an informal network of connections developed from local professional organizations and professional relationships with community employers to give students a leg up on opportunities. “We hear about internships and job openings and we funnel that information to our career development department or pass it along to students we know would be a good fit,” Roberts says. Companies are invited to hold their own recruiting days on campus, and starting this fall each college at PNC will hold its own networking night so students can connect with faculty and business professionals in their major.
Valparaiso University invites employers and business professionals onto campus so students can hear first-hand what employers expect. Sessions are open to sophomores, juniors and seniors. “They can act on the information they get in terms of their curricular choices and choices in terms of activities, work experiences and part-time jobs between now and the time they graduate,” says Tom Cath, director, Career Center, Valparaiso University.
Students at St. Mary’s College can participate in a first-year outreach program introducing them to the Career Crossings Office. “We educate students early on about career development being a process,” says Stacie Jeffirs, director. “It’s not just an event that happens during senior year. They build the necessary skills before they get to the end so they feel more confident about their job search.” More than 6,000 alums are active in the college’s Alumni Resource Network and it also has an active LinkedIn alum group. “There are great resources already out there for students to take advantage of,” Jeffirs says.
Gaining real-life experience
Perhaps nothing is more valuable for giving students a jump-start on their careers, than interactions with real businesses, whether that involves internships or special projects.
The College of Business at Valparaiso University has a partnership with Michigan-based Whirlpool Corp., with Whirlpool executives serving as guest lecturers at the undergraduate and MBA level. Last semester members of the Strategic Management class worked on a capstone project relative to Whirlpool’s e-commerce business strategy.
Students conducted research and came up with solutions and suggestions, which they presented to a panel of Whirlpool executives at Benton Harbor. “The presentation was half-an-hour and they answered questions for another half-hour, defending, explaining and rationalizing their suggestions,” Cath says. “In effect, they were consultants who came in to present their ideas.”
Whirlpool looks for smart, motivated people who can work in a collaborative environment and think through a process. Chris Richards, director Integrated Supply Chain Strategy & Solutions, Whirlpool Corp., says partnering with the university is a great opportunity for everyone.
“It provides students insight to real-world challenges that businesses face,” he says. “Often in the real world, you don’t get the luxury of just optimizing on one axis; it requires people to work together in teams in a collaborative setting, to deliver solutions that balance cost, service and quality.
“From a Whirlpool perspective, we get a number of benefits. Working closely with the students we get a good look at future candidates, and they get an inside look at a large company like Whirlpool. The students also bring a unique perspective in not only the ideas/solutions they bring, but also the perspective they bring as future consumers of Whirlpool products. The students did a fantastic job at quickly understanding the issues as well as developing ideas that we plan to implement as part of that strategy.”
PNC’s Human Resources and Leadership degree programs feature similar capstone projects. In addition, many courses have embedded experiential learning components. “Every marketing course has students working on real projects in the community,” Roberts says. “They can make connections within the community while they are adding to their portfolio.” Service learning projects, such as the Voluntary Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, also offer students ways to interact in the business arena.
St. Mary’s students also participate in VITA, and the college requires all seniors, regardless of major, to complete a comprehensive presentation. Business majors often do an in-depth strategic assessment of a company and a final presentation to a faculty panel. “When students bring this up in interviews, employers can’t believe it,” Merryman says. “Students tell me time and time again, that the bulk of their interviews sometimes revolve around this project.” St. Mary’s students also gain invaluable real-life experience through competitions such as the Indiana Certified Public Accountants Society case competition and the National Team Selling Competition.
Internships are key to giving students an entry into the business world. “Qualified graduates who have internship experiences have practical real-world experience and can make a bigger impact quicker,” Whirlpool’s Richards says.
“We work with non-profits in the local area to help them build their internship programs,” Jeffirs says. In return, these employers or non-profit organizations are able to recruit our students for internships, and some of them have converted their internships into full-time jobs.”
St. Joseph’s has an active, well-organized internship program thanks to a Lilly Grant. “This gives them opportunities over the course of the year to get real-world experience, receive a small stipend and have an opportunity to expand their network,” Riegelnegg says. St. Joseph’s also offers a program to provide education majors with field experience in the classroom during their first year. “Not everyone does that during the first year,” Riegelnegg says. “Students get a sense of whether teaching is a career they would like over the course of a lifetime.”
Valparaiso’s College of Business requires students to do an internship and created a Manager of Experiential Learning position to provide support for students during the internship process. “Not surprisingly, many of our students go to work for those organizations,” Cath says. “Certainly employers are using internships as a recruiting device.”