by Clint Boulton

How university partnerships are priming tech talent pipelines

Jan 17, 20198 mins
IT LeadershipIT SkillsStaff Management

Companies are increasingly partnering with colleges and universities to help foster real-world digital skills — and get a head start on hiring for hard-to-fill tech roles.

kaboom college opensource
Credit: Thinkstock

CIOs frequently lament the dearth in tech talent when discussing the challenges to their digital transformation efforts. To help fill this void, enterprises are increasingly turning to a tried and true source: higher education. But with a twist.

The talent pool for emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and internet of things (IoT), will fall short in filling at least 30 percent of global demand, according to IDC. Organizations struggle to hire data scientists and analytics experts who can munge and extract insights from data.  

[ Beware the 8 most common IT training mistakes and find out how to create business-savvy IT pros. | Find out what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to the IT skills and talent gap. | Get the latest CIO insights direct, with our CIO Daily newsletter. ]

“CIOs will also realize that talent shortage will be a moving target driven by supply and demand and they will have to find adaptive, flexible approaches to meet changing needs,” IDC analysts wrote in a recent research report.

The idea of scouring campuses for tech talent isn’t new, but anecdotal evidence suggests that companies are redoubling their efforts to lure — and help train — future technologists by partnering with colleges and universities on innovation labs and internship programs aimed at developing real-world digital skills.

High tech goes gaga for higher learning

Financial services firm Synchrony in April opened the Emerging Technology Center at the University of Illinois to advance technology capabilities and equip students with real-world skills in AI, data science, design thinking and other emerging tools and practices. More than two dozen students have secured internships at the center.

In September, Synchrony partnered with the University of Connecticut to launch the Synchrony Cybersecurity Center to engage computer science and engineering undergraduate and graduate students to collaborate with the finserv on next-generation cybersecurity tools. It also provides another talent pipeline. “We are investing in talent to make those [technology] skills shifts,” Synchrony CIO Carol Juel told in October.

Kroger in August inked a deal with the University of Cincinnati to create and run an innovation lab within the school’s 1819 Innovation Hub, a 12,000-square-feet makerspace and micro-factory with modern classrooms and multi-purpose rooms. In an effort to jumpstart the grocery chain’s Restock Kroger digital strategy, Kroger R&D engineers and software developers will work alongside UC faculty on digital initiatives in a partnership that will also include a student co-op and internship program.

“The 1819 Innovation Hub is a coworking community where we will build and discover the next generation of technology and talent,” Kroger CIO Chris Hjelm said in a statement. “Our vision is to create a talent pipeline that supports our business and positions the region as a place for digital and technology students and professionals.”

The path to partnerships with institutions of higher learning varies in structure and scope. Many enterprises favor a holistic approach that includes grooming undergraduates to join their companies and outsourcing employees to help conduct research or shape curricula. The universities, meanwhile, are hungry to keep tech talent in their Zip codes as it makes their campuses more attractive to prospective students.

Grooming talent for DATA

Suffolk fits that bill. The building contractor in November teamed up with Northeastern University to launch DATA (digital, analytics, technology and automation), an initiative in which the school’s faculty and Suffolk’s employees will collaborate on research around data and analytics, craft business applications for real-world construction scenarios and, of course, groom talent.

Through the partnership, Suffolk’s IT and business staff will gain exposure to current academic thinking, while helping Northeastern faculty design and shape curriculum, Jit Kee Chin, Suffolk’s chief data officer, tells She expects the R&D that Suffolk and Northeastern collaborate on could lead to the development of new analytics technologies.

Perhaps most importantly for Suffolk, the company will gain access to a strong pool of digital natives from which to hire to work in a sector that has long been barren of cutting-edge technologies. The ecosystem around construction technology has “exploded” in the past two to three years, Chin says, with startups focusing on AI, robotics, drones, augmented reality and other tools. “There are genuine, challenging problems that need to be solved,” Chin says, adding that Northeastern’s “strong entrepreneurial culture,” makes its candidates attractive.

The partnership extends Northeastern’s interdisciplinary focus; for example, students studying engineering, computer science, and supply chain management will learn more about the business challenges facing the construction industry, says Koen Pauwels, a Northeastern distinguished president of marketing. He adds that Suffolk’s headquarters lies in walking distance from Northeastern’s main campus to make it easy for both parties to nurture the student-and-employee exchange pipeline.

“We look forward to partnering with Suffolk to gain a better understanding of how real-world businesses transform themselves to embrace the potential these new techniques bring to their organizations,” Pauwels says. “The key priority is trying to build the new generation of people to help them.”

Try before you hire

Some companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline, have had scholastic partnerships in place for years. GSK has long operated the Future Leaders program, in which university graduates from all over the world work at GSK for three years to get exposure to real-world business situations for the pharmaceutical company. The program typically requires members to complete two rotations within the company’s technology unit and one in a business unit, such as marketing or R&D, says Matt Lasmanis, CIO of GSK in North America.

“At the end of that three-year period, they feel like they have a strong view of how we work and that they contributed value to the business in a broad way,” Lasmanis says, adding that GSK has hired staff from this program for such roles as web engagement and supply chain technology. Lasmanis says GSK is constantly revisiting its approach to the program, which it is looking to expand across additional areas of its core technology, operations and supply chain.

Lasmanis says a key aspect of making the Future Leaders program work is aligning the candidate’s aspirations and interest with the right role at the organization.

For other organizations, university partnerships are an emerging practice. PSAV, an events staging and technology company, two years ago began working with graduate students in computer science and business analytics from the Illinois Institute of Technology and Southern Methodist University on solving data science challenges related to labor efficiency.

Candidates work with such tools as Microsoft Azure, Tableau and Alteryx to massage, clean and present data for these projects, says Bhavin Mehta, PSAV’s director of software engineering, who is running point on these partnerships for CIO Cathie Kozik.

Although the partnerships are relatively new, Mehta says that he has hired two software developers and a database administrator after they worked on analytics projects for PSAV. “Talent is very hard to find,” “This gives us the chance to try before you buy.”

Mehta’s comment underscores a quandary the entire business world faces and validates the college-to-company pipeline. IDC offers the following guidance to tackle the talent shortage:

  • Use startup acquisitions and partnerships to cultivate emerging technology talent.
  • Partner with universities to work on IT initiatives and stack a bench of emerging technology talent.
  • Cultivate and promote a brand that emphasizes cutting-edge technologies and practices to attract talent.
  • Reskill internal staff to ensure they don’t get left behind.

“What doesn’t change is that the best talent will be attracted to the best IT shops — those that use cutting-edge technology and practices, treat workers well, offer opportunities for learning and advancement, and are part of businesses with solid reputations,” IDC noted.

More on hiring and training: