A college-aged man and a slightly older woman sit side-by-side at a round table. The man wears a light gray polo shirt and jeans; he is speaking and gesturing animatedly. The woman wears a pale khaki blazer and is holding a few papers; she smiles encouragingly as she watches the young man speak.
University partnerships, like career fairs and internships, introduce your business to the workforce of the future. — Getty Images/SDI Productions

As companies across all industries experience recruitment and retention troubles, businesses are seeking ways to proactively connect with and improve the workforce. One such strategy is forging partnerships with local higher education institutions, including colleges and universities.

A reported 81% of business leaders believe aligning academic curricula with job requirements can effectively address skill mismatches experienced by employers. However, the mutual benefits of a higher ed–employer partnership go far beyond filling skill gaps.

“Small businesses that are able to establish partnerships with a university in their area should take advantage of the opportunity,” said Kathryn Starke, Founder and CEO of Creative Minds Publications. “Not only can you establish your company's presence and your credibility with a well-respected university, but you get to connect with creative, bright, and innovative talent who want to learn about business while helping improve and impact your own.”

[Read more: How to Recruit Employees From Colleges]

Why small businesses should partner with local universities

Through a collaborative effort, higher education–employer partnerships can create a more reliable workforce that is properly trained to suit the needs of businesses while helping students fulfill academic requirements and build their skills before they even graduate.

First and foremost, small businesses can access eager and talented entry-level talent at a low cost by collaborating with universities to offer career experiences for academic credit. For instance, Starke said her Virginia-based company has partnered with the University of Richmond to offer internships and gain experience in their field of choice.

“I have so many interns to thank for a variety of innovative ideas, social media marketing plans, events, and book launches over the past 10 years,” Starke told CO—. “Through our partnership, students have received high marks in various courses and have gone on to have their own successful jobs in marketing, publishing, and journalism using the same skills they learned in my company.”

Universities are also rich in resources, including cutting-edge research and technological advancements, said Sam Kunda, Managing Partner at Change Frontier.

“For small businesses, this is an invaluable resource for innovation and staying ahead of the curve,” Kunda added.

[Read more: How to Create a Great Internship Experience]

Today's interns are tomorrow's professionals.

Kamil Rejent, Survicate

How to create a successful university partnership

There are numerous ways a small business can partner with a local higher education institution, including:

  • Establishing internship programs for recent or soon-to-be graduates.
  • Participating in university career fairs.
  • Working with students to conduct research for your business.
  • Offering guest lectures or workshops at the university.
  • Sponsoring university events or student organizations.
  • Providing professional development courses for university staff and students.
  • Establishing mentorship programs where your experienced employees mentor university students.

No matter which path you choose, establishing a partnership with a university requires strong relationship-building skills and a significant investment of time and resources. Here’s how to position your business for success.

Define your outcome

Begin a partnership with a university by defining the mutual results you want to achieve and how the partnership can help you get there.

“Clearly understand what both the business and the university stand to gain from the partnership,” said Kunda, whose company partnered with Aston University MBA students to analyze and improve its five-year strategic plan. “This understanding will guide the collaboration toward success.”

Assign team members to oversee the partnership

To ensure a productive partnership, assign a dedicated internal employee or team to supervise and coordinate the collaboration. Your company representative should know the correct point(s) of contact at the university and understand who to contact about any changes, questions, or concerns about any programs your business is involved in.

Look ahead to the long-term benefits of your university partnership

Kamil Rejent, whose survey software company Survicate has engaged with numerous local universities, advised small businesses to be prepared to invest time and resources into nurturing university relationships. He also recommended approaching your partnership with enthusiasm and an open mind about the long-term advantages your small business can gain.

“The benefits of such partnerships may not always be immediate; however, these interactions are crucial for brand exposure and establishing a presence within the community,” Rejent added. “Today's interns are tomorrow's professionals.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

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