Workforce.com

Faculty Interns A Bargain for Business, a Bonus for the Classroom

August 5, 2001
College students have long been a source of interns for business and industry.But a potentially more beneficial source -- and one that more companies arenow discovering -- may be the students' professors.

In what has been described as one of the best-keptsecrets in business, faculty interns are bringing expertise to business andindustry, and returning to classrooms with real-world experience to better educatestudents and to advise them of job opportunities. Workplace internships of weeksand even months are providing college instructors with an opportunity to applytheory to reality, and to help companies gain valuable expertise and a recruitingedge.

Ohio State University business professor GwendolynO'Neal spent the fall of 1996 working and observing at The Limited's headquartersin Columbus. Her primary mission was to learn more about how a company operatesin order to improve her classroom skills. As a professor of apparel marketing,buying, and fashion forecasting, she'd spent years sharing concerns with recruitersabout the gaps between the classroom and the workplace.

"One of the complaints we would hear from recruiterswas the inability to find people with the expertise they were looking for,"she says. O'Neal bemoaned the fact that all available textbooks were based onthe traditional department store model, in which buyers go to market to viewdesigner lines and then place orders.

This approach contrasts with a vertical operation likeThe Limited's, in which the company owns the product from conception to distribution."I asked recruiters, 'Why don't you allow us into your organization sowe can learn the process you're using?' "

O'Neal's interest eventually sparked an unpaid three-monthinternship at The Limited during a fall semester when she wasn't scheduled toteach. The experience, she says, "changed not how I taught but the kindsof concepts relevant to the process of moving products. It broadened my conception."

By participating in executive meetings, examining companyrecords, and spending time with buyers and product developers, she gained adeeper understanding of private store lines and of the vertical approach usedby The Limited and most department stores.

The environment she observed was intense and stressful,with staff engaged in multiple activities that included tracing a shipment,evaluating the quality of merchandise received, and making decisions about whatto produce next. It was a high-risk enterprise with the potential for greatprofits, helping O'Neal realize that her students had to know something aboutevery aspect of the apparel business and that they had to prepare themselvesto function under pressure.

Like others familiar with the faculty internship concept,Stephen Dahms, chair of the Biotechnology Industry Association Workforce Committeeand a professor of chemistry at San Diego State University, views the opportunityto place faculty in short-term business positions as vital.

"A major problem facing workforce developmentis the lack of knowledge of university faculty as to what actually goes on inindustry," he says. He finds that most faculty are ignorant of the waybiotech companies are organized, how regulated they are, and even the meaningof basic acronyms like QA (quality assurance) or TQM (total quality management)."Most faculty just see the industry as jockeying genes around and throwingcells in culture. They don't understand that there are products involved."

Richard Weibl, the editor of Postdoc Network, whichlinks postdoctoral scientists, adds that employers wish students were bettertrained in workplace skills such as teamwork and oral communication. He sayshe has found that graduate students in the sciences often work alone in laboratoriesand aren't able to explain their research to a marketing colleague or a venturecapitalist.

Four years ago, MYCOM, a Cincinnati e-business andcommunications company, hired technical communications professor Sandra Harnerof Cedarville University, a small Baptist college in Ohio, for a 10-week summerinternship. She created several technical documents for MYCOM and trained thecompany's employees in writing skills.

At SCANA, an energy services company in Columbia, SouthCarolina, a business professor at the nearby state university developed an internalleadership Web site as part of an internship program. And in Troy, Michigan,Automotive Youth Educational Systems sponsors a program geared to middle- andhigh-school automotive technology teachers.

Car dealerships nationwide are encouraged to hire educatorsfor periods ranging from several days to a year. Often they work during thesummer, the peak period for service work at most dealerships, says AYES presidentDonald Gray. Instructors might perform quality monitoring, write up repair orders,work in parts departments, or serve as assistant managers for larger stores.

Gray says the AYES program, which was launched in 1995,represents "a paradigm shift in getting business and education to worktogether."

Funding alternatives
Faculty internships are funded in a variety of ways.Sometimes a faculty member volunteers his or her time, as Gwendolyn O'Neal didat The Limited. Usually, however, the faculty member receives some kind of salaryor stipend from the company.

Typically, the company hosting the internship paysthe faculty member a salary and expenses. Eat'n Park, a family restaurant chainheadquartered in Pittsburgh, plans to pay its interns a stipend plus room andboard. SCANA pays its interns a salary plus travel expenses.

During her first internship for Lockheed Martin EnergySystems, Lisa Bogaty of Pellissippi State Technical Community College in Knoxville,Tennessee, was paid $11,000 for three months of work -- the same amount shewould have received at her teaching job. Claudia House of Nashville State TechnicalCommunity College was paid $900 for a three-week internship at Nortel. Her collegecontributed another $600.

In some cases, colleges fund internships through grantsupport. Following Gwendolyn O'Neal's positive experience at The Limited, OhioState University's Department of Consumer and Textile Sciences used a $79,535Higher Education Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture tofund several faculty internships.

Sandra Harner's internship at MYCOM was supported bya $2,000 stipend from the Society for Technical Communication, and a salaryfrom MYCOM. The California State Program for Education and Research in Biotechnologyawards grants for faculty internships in the state's biotechnology industry.And the National Science Foundation's Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaisonwith Industry (GOALI) funds 3- to 12-month faculty visits to industry.

Relevant teaching, expert advice
The greatest benefit that college teachers receive frominternships is exposure to relevant, up-to-date information that they can sharewith students -- including more accurate job opportunity advice.

"What's most surprising to faculty about commercializationis the differences in culture, the differences in approaches," Dahms says."Faculty are not used to thinking in terms of time lines. In academia,research has long-term deadlines and offers the flexibility to follow leadsthat can sometimes take you away from where you thought you would be. But inthe corporate arena, especially in research and development, you're very strictlyconstrained as to how far afield from a topic you can explore. Research is verytargeted, and you realize that corporations work by milestones, timetables,and deadlines related to product development."

One of the biggest problems the biotech industry hasexperienced with recent hires is what he calls "the baccalaureate retentionproblem." That's when students graduate but are not truly prepared forthe realities of the business environment. Dahms says internships help facultyprepare students to better understand an industry so they enter the field withtheir eyes wide open.

Companies also benefit from the connections throughimproved recruiting. That's the main impetus behind Eat'n Park's new facultyinternship program. "Ideally, they'll go back and talk about Eat'n Park.It exposes us to a whole lot of new students," says Gail Ulrich, vice presidentof recruitment, training, and development. "We like the idea of a facultyinternship because it supports the students who are pursuing their degrees inHRIM."

And because faculty are experts in their field, theycan provide real assistance to a company's operation. Textile sciences professorsfrom Ohio State, for example, have helped area clothing retailers evaluate fabricquality, select colors, decide if a garment drawn as a prototype fits righton a model, and analyze which aspects of visual merchandising work.

Such exchanges have also led to cooperative agreements,with faculty members teaching classes for employees at area businesses. In thebiotech industry, engineering faculty who've been awarded GOALI funds have workedfor companies such as Chrysler, Ford, the National Institute of Science andTechnology, Sandia National Laboratories, and the Electric Power Research Institute.The contributions they've made have been significant.

For example, a Pennsylvania State University professoradvised a foundry how to reduce the hazardous green sand emitted during themolding process. Another professor used his mathematical knowledge to help OtisElevator Co. improve the efficiency of its equipment.

As part of a statewide grant, 28 educators each workedfor 120 hours in business and industry throughout Tennessee in 1999. The goalof this part of the Tennessee Exemplary Faculty for Advanced Technology project,funded by the National Science Foundation, was to eventually redirect classroominstruction toward more practical, case-study-based instruction.

Faculty served in various internships at sites thatincluded Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Smith & Nephew, and MCI. They performedsuch tasks as installing cable and administering networks.

Claudia House, an English instructor at Nashville StateTechnical Community College, created an intranet to improve online testing proceduresat Nortel Networks, a global internet and communications company in Nashville.All the testing had been online, but when there was a problem with the productionline, the line went down, and so did all the testing. "They'd have to waitfor an engineer to spec out the problem and fix the production line," Housesays. The new intranet made availability of testing more reliable and freedengineers to handle bigger problems.

As a result of her experience at Nortel, House revampedher technical writing course. "We did memos rather than writing argumentativeessays," she says. "We looked at a product or a problem in industrythat I brought back. People at the sites came into the classrooms. We workedin teams rather than individual assignments."

Lisa Bogaty, who teaches business courses at PellissippiState Technical Community College in Knoxville, went to work for Lockheed MartinEnergy Systems twice. The first time, she spent three months conducting an assessmentstudy on the polymers, plastics, and resins industry, and visited eight southeasternmanufacturers to figure out the market channel and to learn about their needs.During the second internship, at Lockheed Martin's Data Systems, she evaluatedthe kinds of IT jobs workers might be able to perform at Oak Ridge NationalLaboratory, since the lab was about to be split up into separate components.

Her supervisor, Jim Snyder, says, "Lisa had agrounding in information technology and marketing. She understood how to helpus."

Because of her experience, Bogaty says, her classroomexamples are now more relevant. "I can show students that channels of distributionare complex, not straightforward like book examples," she says. One ofher graduates recently landed a job with a computer company that was discussedin class. If not for Bogaty's internship experience, the student probably neverwould have known about the company.

Those close to these diverse programs say faculty internshipsmay be one of the best-kept secrets in the business world. They certainly don'tattract as much attention and support as student internships. Southwest MissouriState University English professor Kris Sutliff, who oversees the Society forTechnical Communication's industry fellowship for faculty, says that's probablybecause academia has forgotten that the learning experiences are just as importantfor teachers as for their students. "They give faculty confidence, credibility,and clout," she says. "You can't teach water-skiing out of a bookif you've never water-skied."

Don Senich, the engineering director for the GOALIprogram, calls faculty internships "one of the most significant teachingtools at the National Science Foundation. Faculty encounter real-world problemsand schedules, then go back to the classroom with different examples. It canchange the entire direction of their research."

Workforce,August 2001, pp. 36-41 -- SubscribeNow!