The ‘skills gap’ is a much-debated issue in the seeming disconnect between job-seeking students and employers looking for the right stuff. A report from McKinsey & Company points out that while global estimates suggest as many as 75 million young people are unemployed, less than 50 percent of businesses maintain they can find enough young workers with the skill sets required to fill their job vacancies. Hiring managers will also contend that the skills they’re looking for in their young potential employees has less to do with specialized knowledge than the basic fundamentals of problem solving, communication skills and business sense. In a recent survey Barnes & Noble College conducted with more than 3,000 students regarding the state of their career preparation and perceptions, students for the most part identify the same skills that employers value as a means to success in their careers. However, according to Lisa Malat, Vice President, Marketing & Operations for Barnes & Noble College, “critical thinking was not often listed as a greatest strength, and clear communication was designated as ‘needs improvement’ by many students.”
One program designed to provide precisely those kinds of skills has been offered during the summer at Rutgers School of Business Camden. Its focus is to provide fundamental career training before the participants have even started a college career. “We call this course the BizEd Program,” explains Samantha Collier, Director of External Affairs for Rutgers School of Business Camden. “We started the program in the summer of 2001 when we began to realize that many high schoolers weren’t well informed about business programs,” she says. The course now hosts anywhere between 25-50 juniors and seniors from a wide range of high schools in the southern New Jersey area. For two weeks, students participate in teams and compete for points in activities and exercises that expose them to accounting, finance, marketing and management disciplines. “Our objective is to help high school students in a program where they can not only learn more about collegiate business education but, in the process, also begin to appreciate leadership skills and the value of teamwork,” Collier points out.
Although the subject is strictly business, the exercises themselves are designed to be engaging and fun for students who often come from disparate backgrounds. The program includes a version of television’s Shark Tank, where they develop products or ideas that they then have to pitch to a team of judges. Another course component includes the opportunity to create an advertising project, and this year, the University District Bookstore was the chosen venue for students to shoot a commercial. “The students had to pick a target market, focusing on some of the unique retail qualities about our store,” explains Store Manager Dan Knittel. “Whether it was the café and convenience offerings, our textbook rental program or the college apparel we stock, it was interesting to see the kinds of things we do here that caught their attention — and that they wanted to promote,” he adds. Bookstore employees Tim Batton and Amanda Howe acted as judges for the completed commercials and provided feedback on each of the team’s efforts. “The winning commercial was chosen because of its call to action, which covered every aspect of the bookstore experience and gave a sense of the bookstore’s mission,” Collier explains.
The unique marketing benefit that the University District Bookstore offered, as the only Barnes & Noble College-managed outlet servicing three separate schools — Camden County College, Rowan University and Rutgers University Camden — under one roof, was not lost on the teams. It was the winning team, however, that used their commercial to highlight the ability for students to be able to use the bookstore to network and expand their opportunities across three separate colleges. “We work with the bookstore throughout the year on everything from orientation to graduation,” says Collier, “and being able to shoot the commercials in the store environment shows how important a supportive a partner is in our efforts to also help educate our summer school students.”
For Store Manager Knittel, the BizEd exercise provided an interesting perspective on his future clientele. “These kids could potentially be the kind of customers we’re serving in our store,” he says, “and it really helped us to understand the kinds of products and services our students will be looking for a year or two down the line.”
Although Collier stresses the purpose of the summer business camp isn’t to function as a recruitment tool, over 50 percent of the participants do typically return to one of the three campuses at Rutgers. “We want the students to take a better understanding of business from their summer school experience, and a better perspective of how the business world works,” she says, “and hopefully, that’s knowledge they can use to prepare for successful, professional careers and benefit from wherever that takes them.”