Jim Woodell—founder of Jim Woodell & Company and Venn University—recently talked with Melissa Lubin, dean of the School of Professional and Continuing Education (SPCE) and chief economic engagement officer, and Nick Swartz, associate dean of SPCE and associate professor of Public Policy and Administration at James Madison University, winner of the Judges’ Award at the 2021 UEDA Awards of Excellence for their Public Private Partnership in Workforce Development entry.
Jim Woodell: Thank you so much for taking the time for this conversation. I’d like to start with, what do you see as having been some of the key outcomes of this program?
Melissa Lubin: One of the biggest accomplishments is this public private partnership where we brought together the community college, four-year institution, and employer—three distinct entities coming together to do something greater than what we could have done alone. Early outcomes from the partnership include over 50 company hires from both of our institutions, either in full-time positions and or contract positions, and over 30 paid internships–well-paid internships–that fit into students’ program plan.
Nick Swartz: I would add as an accomplishment that it’s a model that can be replicated, and a model that we are actively seeking to replicate. It’s a true public private partnership in workforce development that we’re now able to replicate in other sectors. And that’s really exciting.
Jim: Who did you have to partner with? Beyond Merck and the community college, who else have you had to partner with both inside JMU as well as outside the institution for this to be successful?
Melissa: There were two key partners from the very beginning. One was the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which extends across the Commonwealth to create a thriving economy for the entire state through business and employment. The other was the Shenandoah valley partnership, which is a regionally based economic development group. We had to show that we had a partnership and could deliver on outcomes for market expansion. For our region to be selected by Merck—if they were going to invest in the Shenandoah Valley—we needed communication across the Commonwealth, The Virginia economic development partnership helped us bring the legislators and state investments on board so that both the community college and a four-year institution would be able to mobilize and be able to make things happen with those resources.
Nick: What’s been beautiful is the pre-established relationships with our internal colleagues. I think that those relationships have been key in creating more structure around the goals and creating opportunities like the internship program. The internal partners have mainly involved key academic leaders, academic deans, and department heads in the biotech disciplines. That’s been pretty cool.
Jim: What was the most important factor in the success of the program?
Nick: I think flexibility. What I mean by that is that the memorandum of understanding was written in a way to allow flexibility. I don’t think we knew exactly how things were going to unfold and that was okay. And we’ve had to change things, especially because of the pandemic. The fact that there weren’t all of these strict guidelines that we had to go through allowed for that flexibility, and that’s been one of the most important factors.
Melissa: I would also say that this project was mutually beneficial and that the three partners came together with full transparency. From the beginning we said “this is what we need to be successful. We’re willing to invest our time, our resources, our people, and as a result, we’ll want to receive this in return.”
Jim: What would you have done differently if you knew then what you know now, after having gotten this going?
Melissa: Nick pointed out the importance of flexibility. When we began the internship program we weren’t prepared for COVID. We were getting ready to deploy interns in early 2020, and boom, the pandemic hit and we had to rethink how we were going to engage them remotely. This is a manufacturing plant that’s making vaccines and heightened safety protocols prevented our students’ from being on site. We had to rethink our approach for how they could add value remotely–and we did. COVID inspired us to work in new ways to add value–so working remotely will undoubtedly be an option in our intern program moving forward.
Jim: If other universities are trying to do something like this, to adopt or adapt this same kind of strategy, what first steps would you recommend your peers at other institutions might take to be successful with a program like this?
Melissa: One of the first things that comes to my mind is making sure early on that the key stakeholders within your entity—whether you’re coming from a corporation, whether you’re coming from a community college, or from the four-year institution—in order for this to work, the leadership has to be all in on the effort. At JMU, it was critical for the deans and the faculty of the College of Science and Math and the College of Integrated Science and Engineering to be at the center of this project. I had an early conversation with each of the deans and said “I’m willing to be the point person for this project and to help navigate our way. But are you all in? Are you going to deploy resources when we need it? And can you move in real time? Because this is going to be moving quickly. Can I depend on you?” So it’s about being the advocate for what is needed, providing support and leadership along the way and getting everyone on board.
Nick: Also, you really need to think about where you want an initiative like this to go. Really thinking big picture and perhaps beyond the original scope, like what does three years look like if the original plan is for two? Then you have a true vision, and you can begin to think about “what could we do with this partnership?”
Jim: How have you been engaged in UEDA and how has your engagement supported your success?
Nick: I think first of a sense of belonging with individuals who are sharing similar passions, sharing similar pain points, bumps along the road. It’s been great to engage with colleagues at institutions that are like JMU, but also institutions that are not like JMU. For me, it’s sharing our stories, sharing our pain points, sharing our successes, it’s learning best practices. It is a community.
Melissa: Yes, a community that allows us to share, “these are some of the things that really worked, and these are some of the things that we were challenged with,” because we want to help each other. We’re all in this together. When we do well, we want others to do well. And when we see others doing well, we want to know what their promising practices are– that’s what a sense of community is all about!