Is Higher Education Doing It s Job?

High-tech curriculum isn't making the grade in the real world

P> Gary Gerber combs the country searching for the right people. But as the campus recruiter for Electronic Data Systems Corp., he hasn't quite found what he needs in potential hires.

"There is always room for improvement," said Gerber.

He said there is an increasing need for interdisciplinary programs at universities -- programs that integrate technical training with management training and interpersonal skills. Companies want people who can compete in a complex, competitive world.

George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., recently began trying to meet corporate recruiters' demands.

GMU's School of Information Technology and Engineering, and the School of Business interact with local businesses such as MITRE Corp., BDM International Inc. and Computer Sciences Corp. to pass along business requirements to their students.

"The demand for training in high-tech goes up and down," said Murray Black, associate dean of graduate studies and research for the School of Information Technology and Engineering at GMU. "But our graduates don't have trouble getting jobs in information technology and computer science."

The New Century College is one of the programs the university offers to get students in working environments. The Century Club, a non-profit membership organization created to provide a link between the business community and GMU, provided input from businesses to design the curriculum.

The Century Club funded two faculty internship positions at Hughes Information Technology and DynCorp to assess the skills GMU students will need to thrive in a corporate environment. Faculty members worked at Hughes for several months. They interviewed Hughes' vice presidents, middle managers and technical staffs throughout the region, conducted focus groups and collected training data. A curriculum was designed from the research, and students from the School of Business, the School of Information Technology and Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences got an opportunity to learn business and technical skills at Hughes and DynCorp.

"The program brings business into the classroom and gives a first-hand experience to students," said Penny Lewandowski, executive director of the Century Club.

According to Rick Hamilton, director of technology at Hughes, today's engineering graduates lack communication skills. "We're getting real bright engineering students who can't write or give oral presentations," said Hamilton. "Universities are under great pressure to get people out the door and tend to forget these skills." Hamilton, who is part of the Century College program, teaches a class at Hughes on team building and presentation skills to future engineers.

But EDS' Gerber is not only looking for interdisciplinary programs. He's looking for an understanding of requirements to compete for federal contracts, to adapt to corporate changes quickly, an awareness of business process re-engineering, communication ability, leadership and problem-solving skills.

"I haven't seen too many courses on change management. It is very important to be able to adapt to changes within a company," said Gerber. "There are schools that can teach hard-core scientific skills, but do they put theory in practice? Double majors in business and technical skills are preferable."

According to Patricia Carretta, director of the career development center at GMU, "Most GMU students are graduating with some experience...[High-tech companies] are not hiring people in need of a lot of training."

But the question is whether students receive adequate training. Students at U.Va. have taken matters into their own hands and started a business training program for graduate students.

"I was tired of seeing U.Va. students take summer jobs as life guards. They're smarter than that," said Jim Madden, co-founder of U.Va.'s DardenTech.

Madden, an inventory manager for Circuit City stores in Richmond, Va., started the program while he was studying for his MBA at U.Va.'s Darden School of Business. DardenTech is a student-run consulting firm designed to help high-tech companies with venture development. The team of students evaluates new markets, finds commercial applications for new technologies and investigates new licensing opportunities. DardenTech matches second-year MBA students, who have marketing and entrepreneurial backgrounds, with small and medium-sized high-tech firms.

One Darden project involved a study for MJ Systems Inc. of Charlottesville to determine the feasibility of introducing its software into new markets. The student team researched the industry, interviewed representative companies, designed competitor profiles and submitted a full market analysis. The group charged $2,000 per month, per team member, with a $500 administrative fee.

"We did a lot of planning, but the hardest thing for [students] now is setting aside the time to attract clients," Madden said.

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