Business leaders complain bitterly about their inability to find data science talent. But how many have taken the relatively painless step of getting close to the computer science or data analytics department at a nearby college or university?
"In just the past two months, we've had dozens of calls coming in from top banks, major manufacturers, retailers, CPG and consulting companies," said Dick Stevens, a lecturer and career development advisor at the University of Tennesseein Knoxville.
Like many other institutions offering a business analytics program, UT has seen a dramatic uptick in inquiries from the business sector in the past couple of years. Indeed, the school is now preparing to graduate its third class of business analytics students. (UT's business analytics degree replaced degree programs in statistics and management science.)
University of Tennessee faculty are involved in a variety of business outreach programs, and some of their corporate partners recently spoke to InformationWeek, offering plenty of ideas about how companies can work more effectively with educational institutions.
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One cautionary note: Plenty of colleges and universities offer programs like those at UT, but they may be poorly publicized to the outside world. "Sometimes you just have to call the department head and ask what they've got," said one long-time observer of university public-private alliances.
Meet and Greet
For the past two years, UT has hosted 90-minute Friday afternoon meetings between faculty, students and representatives from different companies. "These got so popular that we ran out of Friday afternoon dates, and so we now have Friday breakfasts, too," Stevens said. He added that these informational meet-and-greets have increasingly morphed into recruiting events, with students filling out applications for internships or even full-time jobs.
(Every student in the UT's 18-month master's degree program completes a "Capstone Project," which involves working on a problem with an industry client, typically local. The students work in teams under the supervision of a faculty advisor.)
In the fall of 2010, UT launched the biannual Business Analytics Forum, which offers businesses leaders and faculty a chance to network and share ideas. Participating in such forums is a great way to meet the relevant department heads and professors, according to Julie Ferrara, a UT lecturer and director of the forum.
Amber Morgan, a member of the EY Advisory within the supply chain analytics practice of multinational consultancy firm Ernst & Young, said the company has been working with UT for three years and is hiring more and more students from both its supply chain and business analytics programs. She told InformationWeek, "I would suggest starting with any type of forum the university uses to engage with industry." Forums are a good way to meet faculty, understand their focus and teaching approach, Morgan added. "That's a good indicator for what you'll see in [job] recruits."
"Companies have provided us with actual data sets," said Kenneth Gilbert, Regal Entertainment Group professor of business and head of the UT's statistics, operations and management science department. These real-world data sets offer students a chance to work on actual business scenarios and may provide important insights to the business supplying the data.
For example, construction equipment giant Caterpillar recently signed a contract with the university to conduct an analysis of the real-time satellite-linked data Caterpillar collects on every piece of equipment it has sold in the last three years. While the contractual relationships may involve the data-providing company paying the school a nominal fee to conduct the research, Gilbert said, "The primary goal is to get relevant experience for faculty and students."
Companies like IBM, which have formal academic outreach programs, also provide case studies and data to professors to use the classroom. "The company has already cleared the use of these cases and data sets with their own legal and PR departments. That eliminates all of the legal barriers concerning data security, intellectual property rights, non-disclosure agreements and PR," Gilbert said.
To incentivize students to work on the data cases, some businesses working with UT have sponsored prizes in which groups of student teams compete for a cash prize or other forms of recognition.
"It's easy to fall into cycle of only being on campus when doing recruiting," Ernst & Young's Morgan said, noting that the company has sponsored a number of projects and competitions for undergraduate and graduate students. "We make an effort to have an ongoing relationship with [the] university, including projects students can work on throughout the year."
Universities are unusually eager for individuals with business experience to address undergraduate and graduate classes. The University of Tennessee has taken this up a notch, announcing the joint hire of a new professor with PYA Analytics, an affiliate of Pershing Yoakley Associates, one of the nation's leading provider of services to the healthcare industry.