LAWRENCE — Some of the region’s top business leaders said Tuesday that education could be a powerful economic engine, but only if the state’s colleges and universities strengthen its ties with the business community and forge more active partnerships.
The event, “Strengthening New Jersey’s Future: Advancing the partnership between business and higher education,” was hosted by Rider University’s College of Business and Administration and brought together three area chambers of commerce.
Tom Bracken, president of New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce; Peter Crowley, president of Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce; Robert Prunetti, president of MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce; and David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corp., took part in a panel discussion.
“New Jersey does not have a linkage between higher education and business,” Bracken said. “It’s a major weakness of ours … and we have a major uphill battle to climb.”
He said the state has one of the best K-12 public education systems in the country, but most of its residents leave the state for college. The two groups, he said, share a common goal and can benefit from each other through research opportunities and internships.
“The colleges and universities want to retain those students and the business community wants to eventually hire those students,” he said.
Cohen, who serves on the boards of both the University of Pennsylvania and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, shared examples of how that collaboration can be fostered.
The Philadelphia chamber, for example, has a council made up of college and university presidents and a number of initiatives have come out of the two groups working together. He said school and business leaders can benefit from serving on each other’s boards and while the business community can offer internships to students, it can also rely on the expertise of schools to provide training for its employees.
In his keynote speech, Howard Stoeckel, former CEO of Wawa and a Rider alumnus, said that as the convenience store chain has grown, it has turned to local colleges and universities for help.
“It takes partnerships to achieve success,” he said. “It’s a very different business that requires different skill sets, technologies and mindsets.”
Through the years, Wawa has worked with St. Joseph’s University’s Center for Food Marketing, Immaculata University and Widener University to put employees through college and create customized leadership programs.
“You have to always be a learning organization,” he said. “Every time I came to Rider, I went back to Wawa full of ideas. It kept me young. It kept me on the edge of my seat.”
The panel also touched on internships and co-op programs, which they said give students a competitive edge.
“It’s not enough for them to go three, six months doing nothing,” Crowley said.
He stressed that that businesses need to engage students and show them the ropes so they leave with plenty of hands-on, real-world experience.
“I think there’s a lack of opportunity if companies don’t take advantage of the experience of millennials coming in and letting them work,” he said. “Give them opportunities. They’ll come back with things we didn’t think of.”
Prunetti said colleges and universities could also prove to be valuable resources by working with the business community on research projects and public policy.
Anne Carroll, interim dean of Rider’s business school, said the panel discussion served as a call to action for the business community.
She asked businesses to bring their innovation and challenges to colleges and universities so that the two groups can work on them together; provide students with internships, co-ops, research and consulting projects; and support legislative efforts to improve educational outcomes and improve the business environment.
“Businesses, please host our faculty so that they can shadow you so that they better understand the problems, challenges and opportunities you face,” she said. “Those things can be brought into our classrooms and into our research.”
Cristina Rojas may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaRojasTT. Find The Times of Trenton on Facebook.
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