Higher learning

Fetch coffee and doughnuts, deliver the mail, man the copier — they’re the duties many people still associate with college internships.

But today’s students (normally under the supervision of a faculty adviser) are doing jobs often assigned to management consulting firms, often at no charge. The beneficiaries? The businesses that give them a chance to apply textbook lessons to real-world situations.

Following is a sampling of projects performed by students at area colleges and universities, along with contact names and telephone numbers for those interested in taking advantage of them.

College of Wooster — Since mathematics professor John Ramsay started the Applied Mathematics Research Experience eight years ago, its student teams have been hired by some of the area’s biggest corporate names, including the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Newell-Rubbermaid Inc.

Ramsay describes the bulk of the projects as “management science” — inventory control, production scheduling, floor-plan analysis, etc. But the students have done everything from creating a computer program to assisting workers at Wooster-based Metromedia in determining where to place grommets so their banners won’t tear in the wind to crunching historical and weather data to predict strawberry crop volume for the J.M. Smucker Co. in Orville.

“Really, it’s evolved to be more like a consulting agency than anything else,” Ramsay says. “It’s different from an internship in that the students work at the college. We provide office space, computers and telephones.”

Representatives of companies interested in hiring teams are invited to attend a program in mid-November, at which students who worked through the previous summer give presentations on the projects they completed. The AMRE is designed to provide students with a full-time job for eight weeks in the summer; therefore, the projects they accept are limited to those where needed information and resources are readily available.

“If we have to wait three days for information, we give up a lot of hours to twiddling our thumbs,” Ramsay says.

Fees vary according to the number of students committed to a project. This summer, a team with three students and a faculty adviser ran $8,700 — approximately what it would cost to hire three interns for the same time period, according to Ramsay.

For more information, call Ramsay at (330) 263-2579 or e-mail him at [email protected].

University of Akron Debbie Owens, an assistant professor of marketing, estimates the market research done by the graduate students in her Business Research Methods Class would cost a client “$15,000 to $20,000 a shot.” But the only things clients pay for are any out-of-pocket expenses (postage, rental of a room to conduct focus groups, beverages for participants, etc.) Management must also agree to attend an oral presentation by the student group working on their project.

The class splits into groups of four or five students, and each group works on a project for one of the concerns Owens has lined up. Although she favors nonprofit organizations, small start-up businesses are eligible for selection. “Many of our students are first-generation college (graduates),” she explains. “They just haven’t had that broad experience in the community-leader side of life.”

Past projects include a survey of parents and teens served by the Akron Urban League on current and future recreational programming; a survey of past and present members of the Better Business Bureau on their perceptions of the organization; a market feasibility analysis for Masterdrive of Ohio, a provider of driver training programs for police, youth and the elderly located in Akron, on offering programs to fleet truck services; and a market feasibility study for Inventure Place on corporate interest in creative thinking courses.

For more information, contact Owens at (330) 972-6029.

Kent State University — Approximately three years ago, Dennis Ulrich, director of executive development programs for the Kent State University College of Business Administration, and Doug Shupe, operations manager for the state of Ohio’s Small Business Development Centers, created the Ohio Graduate Business Student Competition.

As the name suggests, the annual contest pits teams of business school grad students from around the state against each other. There is a cash award for the top team, but the real winners are small businesses: Each team of four to six students is judged by the project it completes for a company chosen by the local SBDC.

Last year, teams did 9,000 hours of free consulting work, developing Web sites, financial and marketing plans, business process engineering, “anything that a business really feels as though it needs,” according to Ulrich.

Ulrich calls the competition “a very structured, highly organized thing.”

“In most cases it’s part of a college course that the (team’s) faculty adviser oversees,” he says.

The results can be very impressive.

“We had one case where (the winners) began to look at the financial records and discovered that the chief financial officer of the company had embezzled $150,000,” Ulrich says. “That’s how intense the business analysis gets sometimes.”

Ulrich says 10 schools, including Kent State University, are participating in the competition. (Other participating schools in northeastern Ohio are Case Western Reserve University and Youngstown State University.) An organizing meeting is held in October, and teams work on their projects from December up to the competition in April.

Perhaps the only downside for interested presidents and chief executive officers is that each college or university is only allowed to send two teams to the competition — which means that, for those schools that don’t hold an additional on-campus contest to determine the teams, only two businesses are chosen for projects by their local SBDC each year.

For more information, contact Linda Yost, director of the SBDC at the KSU College of Business, at (330) 672-1279.

Hiram College Teams of undergraduate students enrolled in marketing research classes also conduct marketing research projects at no cost, according to Kathryn Craig, director of the college’s Career Center. One team, for example, recently conducted a market feasibility study for a local woman who was thinking of opening a day care center that offered after-school programs.

The students who sign up for the Organizational Communications class provide a free service called a communications audit, which Craig defines as “a survey of how communication is handled within a particular unit of a business” — among sales reps, with clients, between departments, etc. — and suggestions on how to improve it. Craig says some clients already know they have an internal communications problem; others ask the students to find out if they have one.

For information on marketing research projects, call Jane Rose, dean of the Weekend College, at (330) 569-3211. For information on communications audits, call Gail Ambuske, professor of management and communications, at the same number. Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer and regular contributor to SBN Magazine.