The Case for Schools, Companies to Engage in Formal Partnership

Business and university partnerships can take many forms, but communication between parties is key to ensuring program and student success.
university partnership

In 2012, the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and workforce management software firm Kronos Inc. initiated a formal partnership.

Kronos agreed to sponsor athletics at the university, which grew to hosting speaking engagements and providing scholarships. By 2015, the firm began to include students to work in short stints at the company. Some students have gone on to work at Kronos full-time. This type of partnership allows the employer to develop a talent pipeline and build brand awareness on campus, while the university benefits by having more of its students prepared for their post-academic careers, according to Kerry Willard Bray, assistant director of cooperative education at UMass Lowell.

Creating a partnership doesn’t have to be this extensive, however, according to Greg Denon, assistant dean for career development at the university. “There’s no one set strategy, like every partnership should include X,” he said. “It really sits on where our strengths can help meet their needs.”

There are many reasons that a business might partner with a university, including to hire new talent, sell a product to the university and reskill existing workers, said Aaron Michel, CEO of PathSource, an app for career exploration based in Burlingame, California. Business leaders can also steer what universities teach to influence their talent pipeline.

Companies likely know what skills they need to fill certain roles, so reaching out to universities or community colleges to discuss talent needs and ways to collaborate makes sense. Without such collaboration, skill mismatches will likely persist between what is taught in schools and what companies need.

Besides being widely criticized for ballooning tuitions costs, schools have also taken heat for producing graduates ill-prepared with the skills needed in the modern workforce — a point more schools want feedback on. “That type of hand-in-hand collaboration benefits both sides,” Michel said.

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Business leaders, for example, could teach courses or speak to classes, Michel said, but partnerships can definitely go further. For instance, a company could partner with a university and start a program that provides students with the skills the company lacks; it then could provide those students with internships. If students persist and have the potential to move into a permanent role, the company could help with tuition costs, thus providing a clear trajectory of talent into the organization. “I think those [partnerships] make a world of sense,” Michel said.

Overcoming Obstacles

Look out for changes to the partnership, though. If a school invests in a new program for a company, and then business needs change, that could pose a challenge for the relationship, Michel said. To avoid this, it’s important to get a clear commitment from both parties regarding how long the partnership will last. “That way, they don’t get stuck at the end of musical chairs without a chair,” Michel said.

Another potential challenge is around timing, UMass Lowell’s Denon said. Universities focus on the academic calendar of semesters and a summer break, while the corporate world operates in quarters. This could create complications if the two partner on student projects or teaching arrangements.

Budgetary limitations also can affect these arrangements, Willard Bray said. If a company thinks it’s important for students to learn a certain technology that the school lacks, the company might need to foot the bill on something like a new computer lab. “Each party needs to understand what the limitations may be of what can and can’t be done,” she said.

For the most successful partnership possible, Willard Bray listed the following best practices for universities and businesses:

  1. Maintain open dialogue between university and business.
  2. Communicate anticipated needs of the business and available students at the university to determine program sizes each semester.
  3. If the company hires students, stay in contact during the recruitment process to see how it’s moving along. For example, a company might need help with setting up on-campus interviews.
  4. During an internship, the business and university should maintain contact. This extends to the student as well, in case students are struggling and have trouble communicating that with management.

Partnerships for Reskilling

University and business partnerships can benefit existing talent as well, especially around efforts for reskilling. “As the workforce continues to change and there’s the requirement of upskilling and learning new things as jobs change, there will be more of a collaboration,” said Zoe Weintraub, director of corporate partnerships at Guild Education, a workforce development company based in Denver.

Guild Education, for instance, partnered with fast food chain Chipotle and Bellevue University to create a customized bachelor’s degree in business for Chipotle employees. The courses focus heavily on Chipotle’s own learning and development programs and internal examples to provide relevance to employees’ work lives. “This degree enables our employees to apply what they learn in the classroom to their work at Chipotle and vice versa,” Steve Ells, founder, chairman and CEO at Chipotle said in a press release announcing the partnership. “Employees will gain a solid understanding of business operations including people development, marketing and decision-making.” Participants receive tuition assistance, a personal success coach and other benefits.

Weintraub said over the course of six months, employers with employees enrolled in programs like this see 97 percent retention, compared to 56 percent retention for their peers not enrolled. Participants also see promotions two and a half times faster than their peers. “What you spend on education is going to be less than what it would cost you if you saw that employee walk out the door,” Weintraub said.

That aim for retention goes for both the company and the university, she said, so alignment between employer and education provider is important for success of the program and the students. The partnership should have C-suite interaction with the university to iron out how to develop talent and improve learning and development initiatives internally to ensure employee success in the classroom.

Weintraub listed other best practices for business and university partnerships for reskilling workers.

  1. Go through potential outcomes to determine return on investment and employee success.
  2. Focus on affordability for both the employee and business leader. Tuition assistance is key to the success of these programs.
  3. Be sure that classes and advisers are accessible to the employees. While brick-and-mortar programs can be successful, online courses are more available to employees with busy schedules.
  4. Ensure that the program is applicable to employees and the careers they’re looking to pursue, both in this company and in the long term.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email