Startups today need a higher talent output than universities can supply. And companies young and old face a shortage of skilled workers in an increasingly intense hiring environment. The number of unfilled tech jobs alone is projected to double to 1 million by 2020, according to recent Department of Labor figures.
The solution to this issue is simple: Rather than wait for universities to create startup-ready talent, startups should partner with universities to develop the talent they want to hire. That can mean anything from supporting startups in university-backed incubators to changing the way courses are taught.
The traditional undergraduate model silos students, keeping them isolated to specific teams and areas of study while denying them the interdisciplinary skills necessary to contribute to the growth of young companies. But building a partnership with a university gives startups direct influence over the knowledge or skill gap that traditional education overlooks, in some cases even changing the way the courses are taught.
MIT graduate and associate professor Richard Lachman and I teach a class called Super Course at Ryerson University in Toronto, which brings together students from digital media, media production, new media and computer science to build fully functional prototypes with commercial potential.
Students in these groups learn new skills from one another that they can use anywhere after graduation -- but they’re particularly valuable at startups. Each year, a number of real startups emerge from Super Course. This is great, because entrepreneurship is the intangible and greater result of a course for which students receive academic credit. Companies want future hires to have these exact experiences, but chances are slim that universities will start offering them of their own volition.
Reaching students prior to graduation can be enormously beneficial, but it can also be a waste of time for you and your candidates if you go about it the wrong way. Use the following strategies to ensure that both sides get the most from the experience:
1. Foster passion, and help it grow.
Students, by nature, have less valuable experience than seasoned professionals, but they do have two things that are invaluable to any startup: passion and ambition. They are eager to learn, and have a high drive for self-improvement and growth. Use this opportunity to cultivate an environment where passion and ambition are free to expand. Don’t act like any old professor; bring your real-world experience into the classroom, and give students the opportunity to do something more meaningful.
2. Create discomfort.
When my startup, Flybits, works with undergraduates, we look for passion and four primary skill sets: computer programming, design, communication and emotional intelligence. Few students are experts in all these areas, but those who succeed in a startup environment typically excel in at least one, have a working knowledge of the rest and, most important, have the drive to take risks and learn.
As a professor, I strongly believe in making students uncomfortable in order to encourage bold risk-taking. Give them highly challenging tasks within a safe environment free from punishment. Startups are all about delivering the best outcome in the shortest time frame with the fewest resources and the murkiest objective. Students who can operate under those limitations and create something meaningful will become excellent startup employees down the line.
3. Break the 'I teach; you listen' model.
Students have heard enough lectures, and the “sit and listen” model is ineffective anyway. Startups need students who can work on teams and use creative thinking to get results in the face of seemingly endless roadblocks because that’s what startups have to do to succeed.
Super Course breaks the “sage on stage” model. Instead, I’m the “guide on the side.” Students get four months to work as a team to create a viable, marketable product. I offer guidance but allow them the freedom to develop ideas on their own, which teaches them to take initiative and find solutions to the kinds of problems they’ll face in the real world.
Before onboarding every last student to your own startup, evaluate each one on three factors: academic foundation, coachability and personal intuition. A student without a strong academic foundation might be a great culture fit, but he or she will be unable to further the objectives of the company when it’s time to get to work. Someone who isn’t coachable will cause rifts among team members and prevent the company from growing. Finally, trust your gut: If a brilliant and coachable student is setting off alarm bells, there’s probably a good reason.
Don’t wait for universities to send you prime candidates, then. Take the initiative. Reach out to see how you can develop the talented prospects you want to hire before they ever write a résumé.