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Business Officer Magazine

Education Outside the Classroom

Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, discusses the value for students of experiential education opportunities beyond the classroom.

By Lynn Valenter

In an interview with Business Officer, Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, assesses how well colleges and universities are helping students translate their academic accomplishments into success in the workplace. To read the entire interview, see "On Balance" in the October 2015 issue of Business Officer.

The availability of internships, cooperative education programs, and other strategies to bridge the student and work experience appears to be growing in popularity. Is this trend here to stay? And what do we know about how employers and students value these opportunities?

Experiential education has definitely grown during the past decade. Our research indicates that the percentage of seniors graduating with an experiential education opportunity of some sort has risen from almost 52 percent in 2009 to more than 65 percent in 2015. Our surveys of employers also show growth in the number of student interns who receive from their internship employer full-time job offers after graduation. This conversion rate from intern to full-time employee—which is of great interest and importance to employers—rose from 35 percent in 2005 to 52 percent in 2015. Many employers view this as a way to conduct pre-recruiting; students can also test the work-life and culture of a particular company through their internship experience.

While it used to be that an internship or a cooperative education experience provided a competitive advantage, it is more of an expectation now. That said, recent developments could impact further growth of these opportunities, at least in the immediate future.

What do you mean? Can you provide an example?

One is a concern among employers about the potential costs associated with the Affordable Care Act. The result is that we are seeing from our employer-based survey some reduction in the number of interns hired over the past two years. While the actual cost to the employer is likely to be negligible, there's an uncertainty among our employers around the impact on their benefits costs, and so in response to that uncertainty, some are limiting the number of interns they employ.

A second concern that has had some negative impact around internship availability is recent litigation of the issue of unpaid internships. Our NACE student surveys show that the percent of students with unpaid internships held fairly steady from 2011 to 2014, ranging from about 46 percent to 48 percent over that time period. In 2015, this dropped to 39 percent. We are observing that employers are pulling back. The bottom line here is that within the past two years, in particular, the Affordable Care Act and issues surrounding unpaid internships have had at least some dampening effect on the number of internships that employers are offering.

Despite these concerns, internships continue to play a significant role in giving students real-world exposure to the workplace, and employers are still very interested in sourcing candidates in this way. Hopefully these issues will get resolved so that we continue to see a rise in the number of students who can benefit from these experiences.

What other opportunities and innovative partnerships are you seeing emerge between colleges and employers to better prepare students to enter the workforce?

While the actual internship or cooperative education experience enables students to apply their learning and to build or expand their portfolio with hands-on work experience, there are a variety of effective partnerships among our employers and our institution members that can be considered best practices.

One area of partnership includes academic learning and development relationships, where the curriculum allows for students to engage in case studies or site visits with outside corporate business partners or brings in visiting instructors from business and industry to provide that work-world connection. This can also happen as a faculty development experience, where faculty form connections with business and industry, and bring that knowledge back to the classroom. The more exposure we can give our faculty and students to industry challenges and real-world problems that need to be solved, the more relevant the academic experience will be for students.

A second area is tied to engagement in the form of real-world student advising and corporate advisory roles. Students shadow or are mentored by alumni or another business or industry connection, allowing them the opportunity to conduct informational interviews or identify personal and career coaches. This provides a different kind of advising that extends beyond a student's choice of an academic major. Not every student has the opportunity to take part in an internship, so shadowing programs allow students to spend at least several days with someone in their field of study and provide a kind of engagement that expands their experience beyond the classroom and the campus.

Employers can also engage through the campus career services office, offering resume critiques or mock interviews, or sharing perspectives with students on how to make the most of a career fair. This can really help students better understand how to navigate their career preparation. Employers can also contribute back to the campus through participation on advisory boards, and I know that many of our employer members participate in industry roundtables hosted by campuses that enable faculty and students to learn more about particular industries.

Finally, the third area of partnership relates to industries offering leadership development programs focused on issues related to corporate culture. These allow students—usually between their junior and senior years—to interact with executives, managers, and work teams so that they begin to develop the kind of leadership skills employers are looking for. With growing attention to career readiness competencies, these types of programs are critically important in preparing students for leadership roles in their future careers.

LYNN VALENTER is vice chancellor, finance and operations, Washington State University, Vancouver.

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