Tech Companies, Universities Connect To Better Prep Students for Jobs Tech companies want soft-skills, problem-solving ability, lifelong learners

161129-america-urban-campus-roundtable-020In an employer’s ideal world, universities would prepare students for their careers with the right mix of foundational knowledge, skills and practical experience that hiring companies seek. Instead, however, many potential employers, at least in the tech industry,  are finding that hiring and training newly-minted graduates can be a bumpy process.

In an effort to stem the disconnect and communicate about how universities can give students the preparation employers seek, the Illinois Technology Association convened a “Forecast Roundtable” event on Nov. 29. America’s Urban Campus, a consortium of 22 Chicago universities (including National Louis University), and World Business Chicago acted as co-conveners.

Judah Viola, dean of the College of Professional Studies and Advancement, represented National Louis University. He observed that tech leaders at the Nov. 29 event said they wanted to hire a more diverse workforce, and that NLU may be able to help because it recently received a Hispanic-Serving Institutions grant.

“The HSI  STEM grant NLU recently received is timely in that we are building a set of computer information sciences majors and concentrations that will prepare students from underrepresented minorities for jobs in STEM,” Viola commented.

At the event, leaders of 10 Chicago technology companies hashed out what they wanted from universities, while at another table, deans and program directors of nine Chicago universities discussed what their students need and what they want from industry.

The industry leaders asked for schools to better train graduates in soft skills, like discussing ideas about how best to tackle a project. They also wanted more projects-based learning and better skills in problem-solving, teamwork and communication.

“Build classrooms according to what a company looks like or get them out of classroom and into a work situation,” one said.

“Teach them about more than computer-based skills—teach them financial, sales and marketing, too,” suggested another.

Academics, including Viola, suggested having deeper conversations with industry about what’s needed, including foundational skills; investigating how alumni are doing in given industries and partnering to create internship opportunities for students.

When academics sat down with industry leaders in small-group discussions, one professor lamented that she knows industry wants students to get experience, but she can’t get companies to grant enough internships to her students.

Shaun Lovick, president of nVisia, a software developer and consultant, had an idea for a solution. He said one university has a dedicated person who calls him directly to ask about placing students for internships, and follows up in case he gets busy.

“You’ve got to make it easy on both ends,” he said, adding that as an alternative to internships, briefer touchpoints between students and company employees, such as a meeting or daylong visit, can be valuable.

nVisia’s employees really enjoy mentoring students, Lovick said, so he views the internships as a perk for them.

Adam Kanouse, CTO of Narrative Science, which develops natural language generation software, said, “We want to invest in students, but we’re a small company, so how do we get return on investment? It’s attractive to us to build a relationship with a university so we get first crack at your top students.”

His company mainly hires summer interns to write software, he said. He has found that internships during the school year are thwarted because the company wants more working hours from students than they have available.

Both tech leaders said that when they do bring in students, the students usually do a good job.

“It was wonderful to hear that the companies who attended the tech forum and regularly take interns and employ students on a part-time basis are very happy with the quality of students’ foundational skills,” said NLU’s Viola.

“They emphasized that they value students’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills as much as their technical expertise.”

Trisha Degg of the Illinois Technology Association, which organizes informal networkers for employers and students, said the association could be a force for putting employers and university people in touch with one another.

NLU’s Viola said the ITA would be a great resource to tap into to connect with industry professionals.

“We also plan to use our model of including industry advisory board input in the development of new curriculum as we build our computer science programs,” Viola said.

“We’ll better leverage professional and trade associations to develop partnerships that will allow students to participate in experiential learning and expose them to the technology business.”