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

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

Evelyn Beck

When college professors come to the workplace, companies gain knowledge and send back instructors who better understand how business operates.

College students have long been a source of interns for business and industry. But a potentially more beneficial source–and one that more companies are now discovering–may be the students’ professors. In what has been described as one of the best-kept secrets in business, faculty interns are bringing expertise to business and industry, and returning to classrooms with real-world experience to better educate students and to advise them of job opportunities. Workplace internships of weeks and even months are providing college instructors with an opportunity to apply theory to reality, and to help companies gain valuable expertise and a recruiting edge.

Ohio State University business professor Gwendolyn O’Neal spent the fall of 1996 working and observing at The Limited’s headquarters in Columbus. Her primary mission was to learn more about how a company operates in order to improve her classroom skills. As a professor of apparel marketing, buying, and

fashion forecasting, she’d spent years sharing concerns with recruiters about the gaps between the classroom and the workplace. “One of the complaints we would hear from recruiters was 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 on the traditional department store model, in which buyers go to market to view designer lines and then place orders. This approach contrasts with a vertical operation like The 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 so we can learn the process you’re using?'”

O’Neal’s interest eventually sparked an unpaid three-month internship at The Limited during a fall semester when she wasn’t scheduled to teach. The experience, she says, “changed not how I taught but the kinds of concepts relevant to the process of moving products. It broadened my conception.” By participating in executive meetings, examining company records, and spending time with buyers and product developers, she gained a deeper understanding of private store lines and of the vertical approach used by 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 what to produce next. It was a high-risk enterprise with the potential for great profits, helping O’Neal realize that her students had to know something about every aspect of the apparel business and that they had to prepare themselves to function under pressure.

Like others familiar with the faculty internship concept, Stephen Dahms, chair of the Biotechnology Industry Association Workforce Committee and a professor of chemistry at San Diego State University, views the opportunity to place faculty in short-term business positions as vital. “A major problem facing workforce development is the lack of knowledge of university faculty as to what actually goes on in industry,” he says. He finds that most faculty are ignorant of the way biotech companies are organized, how regulated they are, and even the meaning of basic acronyms like QA (quality assurance) or TQM (total quality management). “Most faculty just see the industry as jockeying genes around and throwing cells in culture. They don’t understand that there are products involved.”

Richard Weibl, the editor of Postdoc Network, which links postdoctoral scientists, adds that employers wish students were better trained in workplace skills such as teamwork and oral communication. He says he has found that graduate students in the sciences often work alone in laboratories and aren’t able to explain their research to a marketing colleague or a venture capitalist.

Four years ago, MYCOM, a Cincinnati e-business and communications company, hired technical communications professor Sandra Harner of Cedarville University, a small Baptist college in Ohio, for a 10-week summer internship. She created several technical documents for MYCOM and trained the company’s employees in writing skills.

At SCANA, an energy services company in Columbia, South Carolina, a business professor at the nearby state university developed an internal leadership Web site as part of an internship program. And in Troy, Michigan, Automotive Youth Educational Systems sponsors a program geared to middle- and high-school automotive technology teachers. Car dealerships nationwide are encouraged to hire educators for periods ranging from several days to a year. Often they work during the summer, the peak period for service work at most dealerships, says AYES president Donald 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 work together.”

Funding alternatives

Faculty internships are funded in a variety of ways. Sometimes a faculty member volunteers his or her time, as Gwendolyn O’Neal did at The Limited. Usually, however, the faculty member receives some kind of salary or stipend from the company. Typically, the company hosting the internship pays the faculty member a salary and expenses. Eat’n Park, a family restaurant chain headquartered in Pittsburgh, plans to pay its interns a stipend plus room and board. SCANA pays its interns a salary plus travel expenses. During her first internship for Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, Lisa Bogaty of Pellissippi State Technical Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, was paid $11,000 for three months of work–the same amount she would have received at her teaching job. Claudia House of Nashville State Technical Community College was paid $900 for a three-week internship at Nortel. Her college contributed another $600.

In some cases, colleges fund internships through grant support. Following Gwendolyn O’Neal’s positive experience at The Limited, Ohio State University’s Department of Consumer and Textile Sciences used a $79,535 Higher Education Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund several faculty internships. Sandra Harner’s internship at MYCOM was supported by a $2,000 stipend from the Society for Technical Communication, and a salary from MYCOM. The California State Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology awards grants for faculty internships in the state’s biotechnology industry. And the National Science Foundation’s Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI) funds 3- to 12-month faculty visits to industry.

Relevant teaching, expert advice

The greatest benefit that college teachers receive from internships is exposure to relevant, up-to-date information that they can share with students–including more accurate job opportunity advice. “What’s most surprising to faculty about commercialization is 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 leads that can sometimes take you away from where you thought you would be. But in the corporate arena, especially in research and development, you’re very strictly constrained as to how far afield from a topic you can explore. Research is very targeted, and you realize that corporations work by milestones, timetables, and deadlines related to product development.”

One of the biggest problems the biotech industry has experienced with recent hires is what he calls “the baccalaureate retention problem.” That’s when students graduate but are not truly prepared for the realities of the business environment. Dahms says internships help faculty prepare students to better understand an industry so they enter the field with their eyes wide open.

Companies also benefit from the connections through improved recruiting. That’s the main impetus behind Eat’n Park’s new faculty internship 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 president of recruitment, training, and development. “We like the idea of a faculty internship because it supports the students who are pursuing their degrees in HRIM.”

And because faculty are experts in their field, they can provide real assistance to a company’s operation. Textile sciences professors from Ohio State, for example, have helped area clothing retailers evaluate fabric quality, select colors, decide if a garment drawn as a prototype fits right on 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 the biotech industry, engineering faculty who’ve been awarded GOALI funds have worked for companies such as Chrysler, Ford, the National Institute of Science and Technology, Sandia National Laboratories, and the Electric Power Research Institute. The contributions they’ve made have been significant. For example, a Pennsylvania State University professor advised a foundry how to reduce the hazardous green sand emitted during the molding process. Another professor used his mathematical knowledge to help Otis Elevator Co. improv e the efficiency of its equipment.

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

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

Claudia House, an English instructor at Nashville State Technical Community College, created an intranet to improve online testing procedures at Nortel Networks, a global internet and communications company in Nashville. All the testing had been online, but when there was a problem with the production line, the line went down, and so did all the testing. “They’d have to wait for an engineer to spec out the problem and fix the production line,” House says. The new intranet made availability of testing more reliable and freed engineers to handle bigger problems.

As a result of her experience at Nortel, House revamped her technical writing course. “We did memos rather than writing argumentative essays,” she says. “We looked at a product or a problem in industry that I brought back. People at the sites came into the classrooms. We worked in teams rather than individual assignments.”

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

Her supervisor, Jim Snyder, says, “Lisa had a grounding in information technology and marketing. She understood how to help us.”

Because of her experience, Bogaty says, her classroom examples are now more relevant. “I can show students that channels of distribution are complex, not straightforward like book examples,” she says. One of her graduates recently landed a job with a computer company that was discussed in class. If not for Bogaty’s internship experience, the student probably never would have known about the company.

Those close to these diverse programs say faculty internships may be one of the best-kept secrets in the business world. They certainly don’t attract as much attention and support as student internships. Southwest Missouri State University English professor Kris Sutliff, who oversees the Society for Technical Communication’s industry fellowship for faculty, says that’s probably because academia has forgotten that the learning experiences are just as important for teachers as for their students. “They give faculty confidence, credibility, and clout,” she says. “You can’t teach water-skiing out of a book if you’ve never water-skied.”

Don Senich, the engineering director for the GOALI program, calls faculty internships “one of the most significant teaching tools at the National Science Foundation. Faculty encounter real-world problems and schedules, then go back to the classroom with different examples. It can change the entire direction of their research.”

Evelyn Beck is a freelance writer based in Anderson, South Carolina.



Society for Technical Communication Industry Fellowship for Faculty It accepts applications from both faculty and industry: www.smsu.edulenglishlstcllndustryFellowship.htm (The STC also awards a $2,000 Teaching Fellowship for Practicing Professionals: wwwsmsu.edu/englishlstciTeachingFellowship.htm)

Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry

This National Science Foundation program funds extended faculty visits to industry–3 to 12 months–to foster long-term industry-university collaboration. It requires matching funds from industry: www.nsf.gov/pubs/1998/nsf98 142/nsf98 142.txt

California State Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology

It awards grants for faculty internships in the biotechnology industry: www.csuchico.edu/csuperb/

Higher Education Challenge Grants

These fund undergraduate education in the food and agricultural sciences, which can be used toward proposals that foster better working relationships between universities and the private sector: http://faeis.tamu.cdu/hep/menus/msgc [sim][sim]l.htm.

The International Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education is coordinating faculty internship applications for Eat’n Park, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, Marriott International, and Red Lobster Restaurants for summer 2001: www.chrie.org/

HR Checklist


A faculty internship can result in great benefits for both the company and the intern, but planning is essential. Here are some tips:

* Meet with the faculty intern ahead of time and compile a list of benefits to everyone involved. “There should be a statement of work so both parties’ expectations are at the same level,” says Jim Snyder of BWXTY-12 (formerly Lockheed Martin Energy Systems). “Everyone should know what you hope to accomplish so at the end there are no surprises.”

* Agree on specific projects. “Try very hard to have specific projects in mind,” says Tom Zimmerman, formerly senior vice president at MYCOM, a Cincinnati e-business and communications company. “Don’t leave the person on their own to ‘find work’ or ‘make work,’ but also give them sufficient flexibility to look around at different aspects of the operation and learn whatever they deem appropriate.”

* Have the faculty member sign a nondisclosure agreement if he or she will have access to company secrets.

* Be flexible in scheduling. Working around the schedules of faculty members can be trickier than for those of students, especially if a project extends beyond the summer.

* Explain the benefits of a faculty internship to employees. “You have some internal selling to do with different areas of your company,” says SCANA’s Cathy Love. “It takes time to make this a valuable experience for teachers.”

* Check with faculty interns frequently to make sure they’re not encountering any obstacles.

* Conduct an exit interview to solicit suggestions from the intern.

* Stay in touch. “If you open a door, if it’s appropriate, it’s nice to keep the door open,” Snyder says.

COPYRIGHT 2001 ACC Communications Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group