The Vital Importance of Connecting College Students with Industry Experience

Re-examining current education models with ‘competent producers’ in mind. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Randy Swearer

CREDIT McGraw Hill.pngColleges and universities are a stepping stone between childhood and adulthood, a launch pad into professionalism and an educational haven for acquiring the necessary skills to lock in good careers.

And yet, they are failing to leave undergrads feeling confident in this professional capacity, especially when it comes to using specialized industry technology.

According to McGraw Hill Education’s 2017 Future Workforce Survey, fewer than half of college students today feel very or extremely prepared for their professional careers ahead and only thirty-seven percent acquired skills in industry technology, signifying a major problem with the way our colleges and universities are preparing students for the future.

With the labor landscape constantly evolving, it’s more important than ever before to provide students with access to a myriad of experiences both inside and outside the classroom.

Until we can amend the current education model to include more hands-on industry training and skills, students are left to seek out internships and experiences outside of university walls to prepare them for the future.

Sixty-three percent of the students surveyed indicated that they would have felt more prepared for the workforce if they had participated in more internships and built up more professional experience during college.

While some of the responsibility remains on students to seek the critical experience to prepare themselves for the future, society as a whole can and should do more to ready students for what lies ahead.

This is especially important as industry experience is no longer an option, but rather an essential component of preparing for future employment.

According to The Graduate Market in 2017 – an annual report on universities and the employment market in Britain by High Fliers Research – two-fifths of recruiters hoped to attract more applicants for specific job functions, particularly those with engineering or other technical vacancies.

Students, universities and businesses must come together to ensure the current generation is prepared for the realities and possibilities of future careers.

A Winning Approach

One former NFL player and a former competitive soccer player decided to take matters into his own hands after graduating from Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture. Upon realizing their mutual appreciation for design, Kevin Jones and Alex Barrette decided to build their own design consultancy firm – Joba.

With strong roots in Virginia, they sought to create a local design hub so that future Virginia Tech students would have the opportunity to directly connect with the design and tech industries without relocating to major cities like New York or San Francisco.

Joba welcomes the opportunity to work with interns, teaching them how to use professional design software, like Autodesk’s Fusion 360, among others.

By hiring students, Joba fostered an environment where students are awarded the opportunity to have a meaningful and valuable experience setting them on a path for professional success. Both having had professional sports experience, Kevin and Alex knew what it was like to be part of a team and to have a larger goal in mind aside from individual objectives.

They leveraged their athletic experience to create a sense of camaraderie among their staff, allowing their interns to develop equally significant soft skills (like the ability to collaborate and work well with others) while also honing in on vital technical industry experience.

Fast Track for Success

In the UK, Autodesk is leading a Future of British Manufacturing Initiative which is a collaboration between key UK organizations that’s focused on increasing competitive advantage by removing the barriers to true productivity and innovation.

The Fast Track Program is one element of this initiative which enables student experts from the U.K.’s top design and engineering universities to intern as “digital catalysts” in established businesses and expedite their adoption of digital technologies.

It also increases the ability of those companies to develop innovative, connected products. The program quintessentially brings together students, universities and businesses for a rich experience that benefits all involved.

Just Doing It Now

PENSOLE™ Footwear Design Academy  is another example of how students can refine their design and technical skills while gaining industry-relevant experience. The program teaches students the entire footwear design process from concept development to prototyping and branding and the hands-on environment exposes students to a real-life work environment.

As a result of the PENSOLE program, there are already nearly 250 graduates working professionally for world renowned footwear companies such as adidas, JORDAN, Nike, North Face, New Balance and Under Armour.  PENSOLE founder, D’Wayne Edwards took things one step further by partnering with YouTube Red to launch the channel’s first-ever, unscripted competition series: Lace Up: The Ultimate Sneaker Challenge.

Twelve students from around the world were awarded the chance to design, develop and produce the next ‘it’ sneaker for NBA star James Harden and adidas. The series emphasizes a mix of design and professional skills with adidas manufacturing an exclusive limited run of the final winning design which is slated to become publicly available in November.

Setting Students on a Successful Path

With the labor landscape constantly evolving, it’s more important than ever before to provide students with access to a myriad of experiences both inside and outside the classroom. In doing so, we are setting students on a successful and fruitful career path.

Initiatives like Joba’s internship program, the Future of British Manufacturing’s Fast Track Program and PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy help ensure the next generation is receiving invaluable opportunities to prepare for future careers while also exposing industry professionals to fresh ideas and a skilled talent pool to help close the impending skills gap.

Randy Swearer, Ph.D., is the vice president for Autodesk’s global Autodesk Education Experiences team. He empowers students on a journey of lifelong learning through problem-solving, collaboration and design thinking. He was dean of Parsons School of Design and provost at Philadelphia University, bringing with him education experience that is as deep as it is wide. He also served as the deputy director of the design program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and was the Design Division head in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas. There, he was awarded a Texas Excellence Teaching Prize. Randy received his Ph.D. in anthropology and urban studies from Union Institute, an M.F.A. in design from Yale University, and a B.A. from Wesleyan University.

  • Harold Roney


    excellent article of hands on experience that is lacking in the educational sector/ vertical collaboration of industry to academia proves vital for success and strength of employee with an employer reaping the rewards. Thank you Randy

  • Barbara Termaat


    Another strong example of Industry helping educators to bridge the gap is the Cisco Networking Academy (, with cert-aligned skills to jobs pathways in Networking, Security, IoT and several other technology areas. Our TalentBridge program helps build the softer skills needed for the T-shaped professional employers desire and connects students with potential employers–including Cisco and our Partners.

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