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Making Opportunities Knock

March/April 2020

By Margo Vanover Porter

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By leveraging vendor partnerships, institutions can generate recurring annual internships and permanent employment opportunities for students.

A University of Utah student, we’ll call her Angela, just landed her very first job after graduation—in her chosen field. “She is working in the New York corporate office of PepsiCo Inc., a $60 billion-plus company with a worldwide presence, as part of the national marketing team,” says Brett Eden, director, auxiliary business development, University of Utah (UU), Salt Lake City. “What an amazing opportunity for a career path.”

Angela didn’t just stumble upon this life-changing position. As an undergraduate, she paid her dues by becoming a Pepsi ambassador and intern, both opportunities created through a university-corporate partnership.

Angela is just one of thousands of students across the country who are finding rewarding careers in no small part because their institutions are leveraging vendor relationships to obtain employment commitments for their students. These opportunities—which can include internships, scholarships, and full-time employment—cover every imaginable field, such as accounting, banking, finance, insurance, food, construction, sustainability, and technology.

“The benefits are simple,” Eden says. “As we transition all of our contracts into this type of agreement, we will have so many opportunities for students to have jobs as they graduate. We have over 30,000 students—I don’t know if we will ever be able to offer 30,000 contractual jobs every year, but right now our partnerships are providing more opportunities for students than ever before.”

In addition to its arrangement with Pepsi, UU has a student-employment component built into its contract with Under Armour Inc., and both companies have specific account and brand managers who are assigned to the university. Eden also has five or six additional vendor contracts sitting on his desk waiting for review and possible approval.

“If you find the right partner, the contract is more than a piece of paper,” Eden says. “You both can grow together and become a resource for students in their success. As an institution of higher education, our purpose is to give students an opportunity for success. That’s at the core of these agreements.”

The auxiliary business development office has been negotiating these campuswide partnerships, which complement the university’s core mission and the president’s initiatives, for at least five years. “When we talked with companies, we realized they are looking for good talent,” Eden says. “As we develop a deep partnership, we can connect them with students as potential employees. It’s a no-brainer.”

Internships Pave the Way

“Whenever we enter into a long-term partnership with a vendor, we add a student component,” says Michael Papadakis, senior vice president and CFO for the office of business and finance at The Ohio State University, Columbus. “Typically, that begins with a guaranteed number of internships. We start by asking them for more internships than they have offered historically. If they had already been hiring 10 students a year, we ask them to increase that.”

Papadakis believes internships showcase the students’ employable skills, often leading to full-time careers after graduation. He estimates that several hundred Ohio State students land internships through such vendor partnerships every year, and that the majority of those receive offers of full-time employment.

Huntington Bancshares Inc., a Fortune 500 regional bank holding company headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, was among the leading corporations to expand its partnership with the school by offering experiential learning. Since then, the university has expanded its agreements to include career exploration opportunities with companies such as Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., Nike Inc., multinational energy company ENGIE, and The Coca-Cola Co.

Internships can offer travel opportunities as well as tangible work experience, Papadakis says. While interns with Huntington typically spend their summers in Columbus, interns with Nike travel to the company’s headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., for the summer, while ENGIE interns may end up working at a site in Europe.

According to Papadakis, student interns are selected through an interview process with the corporate entity, providing students with direct exposure to talent and acquisition hiring managers. Huntington, for example, posts its available positions on campus, and interested students submit their resumes. The bank’s representatives then decide which students they want to interview during a company visit every fall. Finalists are brought to the corporate office for subsequent interviews before a final decision is made. When corporate partners are looking for a specific skill set, they might even reach out directly to faculty members or look for recommendations from deans or other administrators.

These vendor relationships can benefit students, faculty, and staff, Papadakis says. “Students gain better employment opportunities and sometimes [there is] a scholarship component. A lot of these entities set up scholarship funds, typically endowed funds, for both undergraduate and graduate students. Our faculty finds research opportunities in areas of collective interest, and we seek opportunities for staff training.”

Papadakis points out that not every vendor qualifies for an affinity relationship. “This started back in 2012 with a few preferred partners that we thought would have an interest in expanding their relationship with Ohio State. Over time, it has evolved. We have a good dialogue about what’s in it for them and what’s in it for the university. When we talk about affinity, there has to be something in it for the different stakeholders at Ohio State. It’s a true partnership, not just a financial arrangement.”

In the beginning, the president, provost, and CFO all signed off on the requirements for affinity relationships. Now, an affinity committee—composed of more than a dozen members from a cross section of the campus community—vets partnership opportunities to then present to senior leadership for approval. Committee members include deans as well as representatives from the medical center and athletics, legal, business, and finance departments.

“When we have a new opportunity, we usually ask members of our affinity committee what they think,” Papadakis says. “Are they overwhelmingly in favor? Are they against it? If that group feels good about it, we will have more conversations. If the committee has serious reservations, we will pause and decide whether it makes sense to continue conversations.”

Meeting Strategic Needs

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, began inserting student internships and job guarantees in supplier contracts two-plus years ago, according to Nimish Patel, associate vice president of procurement and chief procurement officer.

“Our goal is to leverage our market presence for the betterment of our students,” he says. “With some of our strategic suppliers—right now it’s just a handful—we are starting to ask for value-added services and programs as part of our solicitation process. We’re asking our suppliers to think about options that line up with their strategic needs. If we look at demographic trends today, there is a shortage of talent. A lot of corporations are struggling to build a talent pipeline that can feed their existing infrastructure. There’s no better way to grow talent and benefit this institution.”

Rutgers’ pouring-rights partner—Coca-Cola—offers multiple opportunities for internships and full-time positions. “As part of the agreement, Coca-Cola guarantees a certain number of full-time slots for Rutgers graduates,” Patel says.

Another Rutgers partner, the Compass Group, a venture capital and private equity firm, also guarantees job opportunities for students. “We have a list of partners that we want to solicit these types of proposals from as contracts come up for renewal,” Patel says. “We’re looking at bank partners, telecom suppliers, financial institutions; we’re searching for partners in insurance, technology, construction. We do a deeper analysis around the needs of the corporation before we approach them from the business or commercial side regarding opportunities for students.”

Even then, there’s no guarantee of success, he says. “Frankly, it’s hit or miss. Some of the potential partners look good on paper, but when we approach them, they have no interest. Some have geographic limitations on where they want to draw their pool of candidates from. Others already have established college recruitment preferences based on historical affiliations with institutions, which interferes with us bringing in a new source of talent.”

Once partners are under contract and on board, Rutgers implements its supplier relationship management program. “All of our strategic suppliers have regular meetings with us,” Patel says. “Some are quarterly, whereas some are annual, as determined by the supplier relations manager. At these meetings, we do a 360-degree review of the relationship and ask, ‘Are there process improvements that would make our partnership stronger?’”

A qualitative survey within the university stakeholder base helps provide feedback to suppliers during these meetings. “That’s usually very telling in terms of pain points,” Patel says. “These discussions cover high-level, strategic, and long-term planning. They aren’t happening at the sales/buyer level. This is how we keep the lines of communication open.”

Patel, whose department coordinates spend of more than $1 billion annually on goods and services, is excited about the potential for leveraging vendor contracts to gain a foot in the door for students who seek career paths. “Stay tuned,” he emphasizes. “We expect to expand this program in the near future.”

Gaining Consensus

Before implementing these types of supplier relationship programs, institution leaders suggest frequent coordination and communication with the appropriate professional schools and departments, including the career placement center and business office.

“It’s always challenging to get everyone on campus on the same page,” Papadakis says. “We’re a large institution with 15 academic colleges, and each has its own career services function that is separate from how we deal with vendors. Coming to terms with the colleges’ different perspectives and points of view was a challenge at first.”

According to Papadakis, not everyone on a college campus views tight relationships with corporate entities favorably. This is particularly true for faculty members, who might worry that their research may not align with a corporation’s vision or that their research might be subject to undue influence or considered tainted if a supplier is involved. “Communication can help people understand what the benefits are,” he says. “Engaging with stakeholders is key to right-sizing the relationship and building new ways of supporting higher education.”

Leaders considering these kinds of partnerships would also do well to:

Be selective. “Finding the right partners is important,” Papadakis says. “This is not going to work with all of the entities that you do business with. We deal with thousands of different entities, but only a small handful think beyond the typical vendor relationship. Finding the right vendor can be an upfront challenge.”

Ensure values align. “Anytime you agree to a long-term partnership, you are essentially marrying your institution to that entity,” Papadakis says. “The risk is that a PR or governance issue could bleed over to the university. These affinity arrangements are long-term, often 10- or 15-year partnerships. If issues do come up, you need a certain level of protection from the legal documentation.”

Eden agrees, adding that it’s essential to include an alignment-of-values clause in contracts.

Offer equal opportunities. Institutions need to put aside competing interests and give students on all of their campuses a chance to apply for positions, Patel emphasizes. “We have two business schools, and they have a presence on all three of our main campuses—New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden,” he says. “This is first come, first served. We need to put forward a unified front and afford equal opportunities to our campuses.”

Put teeth in the contract. “What happens if the affinity partner doesn’t fulfill its obligations?”asks Papadakis. Your contract should specify the penalties for failure to meet the required terms, he says, although he points out that he has never encountered that issue with any affinity partners.

Look at industry verticals. Institutions should provide students with the skills and experience that organizations increasingly are demanding, which is why Rutgers has put together an internal program for students called Road to Wall Street. “We hire students to work in our endowment office to get real-world experience as part of their education,” Patel says. “There they can make connections with our financial services partners. Several students have secured positions on Wall Street as a result. We want to build similar initiatives across our various procurement channels. We want to look at industry verticals to find a match between organizations and our students. Matching is the hardest part.”

Consider a single point of contact. Ohio State is finalizing a process to set up a single point of contact for corporations that wish to navigate the university. “What often happens is a corporation has a relationship with a certain college or unit but doesn’t have a central place where its representatives can have a broader conversation about corporate needs, whether those include student recruitment, philanthropy, research, or something else,” Papadakis says. “One of the biggest challenges for any university is figuring out how to handle relationships with corporate entities.”

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Related Topics

“Whenever we enter into a long-term partnership with a vendor, we add a student component.”

Michael Papadakis, The Ohio State University

“We want to look at industry verticals to find a match between organizations and our students. Matching is the hardest part.”

Nimish Patel, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey