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A word with Chuck Staben, University of Idaho president

University of Idaho President Chuck Staben at the school’s Boise location. Photo by Pete Grady.

As the Gem State’s tech industry booms, so does its demand for smart, skilled employees. The University of Idaho is working to fill some of that void.

In spring 2018, the Moscow-based school formed a partnership with the Fenway Group, an organization that connects IT-minded students with top-tier corporations like Southwest Airlines and CenturyLink.

The unique business model sees the Fenway Group — which also has partner institutions of higher education in Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Texas — contract with companies in information technology, primarily web application development. A Fenway Group coach and technical lead identifies business opportunities and works with both the industry project leader and the student team, which performs the work remotely from the university campus.

University of Idaho President Chuck Staben stresses that a position with the Fenway Group is more than just a part-time job. Students earn a competitive wage in a fast-paced environment addressing business-critical needs — real-world work with real-world accountability.

Over 18-24 months in the program, students receive mentorship, professional development and networking opportunities. At Fenway sites, students often go on to work for the companies on whose projects they’ve contributed.

While the U of I’s Fenway students have been taking on projects for large corporations from across the country, Staben says he would love to see more Idaho companies partner with the group, which would leverage the university’s talent to benefit the local economy.

How would you describe the Fenway Group program and its goals in a nutshell?

The Fenway Group partnership brings the benefits of a major employer to our college town setting. The Fenway Group program offers students real-world work experience in an exciting field, combined with on-the-ground mentorship, networking possibilities and future career opportunities.

Internships and relevant work experience are increasingly important for students for success after they graduate. We’re excited to deliver a really meaningful opportunity that will help students become leaders in information technology and related fields.

Tell me more about how your partnership with The Fenway Group came about.

College of Business and Economics Dean Marc Chopin initiated the program at U of I in spring 2018 and has shepherded its evolution. Marc had a relationship with the CEO of the Fenway Group dating back to the time they were both at Louisiana Tech University. He was able to bring that connection with him to U of I.  In Moscow, in just a few months, the Fenway Group has already outgrown its original space in our Bruce Pitman Center as it has scaled up to 18 students in the program for fall 2018.

What kind of feedback are you hearing from students about this program?

Student enjoy the busy and exciting work atmosphere. They’re gaining invaluable experience and skills that offer a leg up for life after college. For a recent Friday Letter – my weekly newsletter to the U of I community – we spoke with a couple students. Senior Tayler Makinen, from Meridian, is using his skills in database management and system analysis to develop a digital calendaring and scheduling system. It’s a challenging, technical project. His partner, Jaidin, from Moscow, is a double major in mathematics and computer science, and was drawn to the program because he still wants to explore exactly where his interests lie. Both of them are learning the real-world opportunities and the many exciting niches that exist in the world of IT. They both appreciate that you don’t have to know everything coming in – the program builds in mentorship and coaching. These are real-world projects, so there is real-world accountability, but we’re putting students in a position to succeed in their work.

I think students are excited that this opportunity is available to them, maybe when they didn’t expect it. Students appreciate the mentorship aspect – the Fenway Group coach and technical lead help facilitate success – as well as the opportunity to grow with the position over time, the 18-24 months in the program.

Moscow is a small community that is far from tech hubs. Do you see this program as a selling point that will attract students who might have picked a different school?

Our geographic setting on the Palouse has many advantages. But for all the benefits of a safe, residential campus community, in a small town, our students can benefit from expanded opportunities for work and internships. Far from high-tech hubs, U of I in Moscow has found a way to deliver 21st-century opportunities to prepare individuals for success in an evolving Idaho economy. Dean Marc Chopin and I agree that this program helps differentiate the opportunities available at U of I from those available at other schools in the region.

The program is growing quickly – has the response been stronger than you expected?

With 18 students participating this fall, the program has already outgrown its original space in our Pitman Center facility. We’re excited about that growth. We’re also seeing a lot of interest from students who are not in computer science or technology field, and we welcome them to take up this opportunity.

We hear a lot about the need for stronger education in Idaho to create an educated workforce, particularly when it comes to technical skills. I imagine many local employers are excited to see this program get started.

This program fills a growing workforce development need. Idaho’s economy has emerging strengths in everything from advanced manufacturing to aerospace engineering. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, two of the five highest-growth occupations in our state from 2014 to 2024 will be computer and mathematical professions, and business and financial operations that will add more than 10,000 new positions between them. Software developers are the No.1 “hot job” in the state, offering high wages and abundant openings. Our employers in the nation’s fastest-growing state are clamoring for job-ready employees with these abilities.

Higher education is critical to support economic growth for the long term. The University of Idaho teaches essential skills: professional expertise, problem-solving, communication and leadership. Like many public universities, we have a large pool of motivated, capable students seeking on-the-job experience that facilitates seamless entry into the workplace after graduation.

What are your hopes for the program down the road, say in the next five years?

We definitely want the program to grow to at least 100 or more students eventually employed, and to do that we’re going to keep building relationships with employers in Idaho and across the region. Good work is always the best ambassador for generating new opportunities, so we think that will help convince many businesses of the viability of this kind of program. We’ll keep doing our best to get the word out, too. Many of our alumni might even be in a position to partner with the Fenway Group on business projects.

Ultimately, the measure of the program’s success that matters most to us is if our students emerge from it prepared to succeed in their careers. We’re really encouraged by the program’s success at other institutions in getting participants into careers. Students often go on to work for the companies on whose projects they’ve contributed.

As we scale up here at U of I, I am confident we will see that same success. This program checks a lot of the boxes for us at U of I: It provides a good wage that helps with college affordability, it offers real-world experience that builds skills, it has built-in networking possibilities, and it allows students to explore their interests and grow as people.

And ultimately, it leads to a good job that can underpin a strong financial future. Good jobs mean great lives. That’s always been at the heart of what we do at U of I, setting students up for lifelong success.

About Kim Burgess

Kim Burgess is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.