The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) announced Iowa State University as the “Talent” award winner during its sixth annual Innovation & Economic Prosperity (IEP) University Awards held on November 12, 2017 at the association’s annual meeting in Washington, DC. The Office of Economic Development and Industry Relations wanted to take this opportunity to highlight the three case study narratives Iowa State University submitted toward its award-winning application. The second in the series of three is a spotlight on the Fostering Connections case study narrative.

Case Study #2 – Fostering Connections: Accessing Tomorrow’s Talented Workforce

Boehringer Ingelheim in the ISU Research Park.

Located less than two miles from campus, the Iowa State University Research Park (ISURP) is home to more than 60 companies that are capitalizing on the value proposition offered by the university: research expertise, research infrastructure, and talent. The majority of these innovative companies sprung from university technology. The ISURP community also includes a number of world-class companies that acquired ISURP startups, such as Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck, Siemans, and BASF.

Post-acquisition these companies have chosen to stay and grow their footprint at ISURP.  The local research infrastructure is the key factor in some cases.  For example, both Boehringer Ingelheim and Merck benefit greatly from the rich animal health infrastructure that includes the USDA’s National Animal Disease Center and the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine.  Specialized labs and equipment, animal testing capabilities, and a strong pool of scientific talent exist at these facilities.

While the university’s research enterprise drove ISURP’s inception and early growth, and remains a primary attraction to companies, access to the talent being developed at Iowa State has become an equally important factor for both new and established companies.  The competition for talent, particularly in the STEM fields, is fierce and companies are pursuing every avenue and approach to attracting and retaining this talent.  ISURP works closely with the university to provide an environment that supports talent acquisition by its tenant companies and valuable professional experiences and employment opportunities for students.  Typically, 250-300 student interns are working at ISURP companies, and the average salary at ISURP companies is more than 70% higher than the average salary in the state.  The following sections provide a few examples.

Workiva, one of the state’s fastest growing technology companies, launched its operation at ISURP in 2007 primarily to take advantage of a pool of software development talent they cultivated with their first ISURP startup, Engineering Animation, which eventually was taken public, sold, and spun off into several companies that remain at ISURP.  Today, Workiva employs more than 750, and maintains its corporate headquarters at ISURP. They hire close to a hundred Iowa State students annually in internship and permanent positions.

A valuable resource for ISURP startup companies is the Reiman Intern Program, an endowment established by an alum to fund student internships with startups.  The program covers 100% of the students’ salaries. Many Reiman Scholars have become the first full time employees for these fledgling companies, or have gone on to create their own startup, through programmatic offerings at ISURP such as CyStarters and ISU Startup Factory.

In the last several years as competition for professionals in the STEM fields heated up, ISURP became home to several Iowa-based companies with national and global brands, including Vermeer Corporation, Pella Windows, John Deere, TMC Trucking and Sukup Manufacturing. Each of these companies has enjoyed paramount success in their respective home locations, mostly located in rural Iowa, but each struggled with retaining STEM-based technical talent, particularly engineers.

Students attending the ISU Hackathon at the Vermeer Applied Technology Hub in the ISU Research Park.

These companies employ a common strategy to recruit and retain the best and brightest talent at Iowa State.  They have set up R&D, training, and other operations at ISURP and offer students employment with the company during the school year after their summer internships ended. This retention strategy of staying closely connected with interns has worked very well.  An additional benefit for both companies and Iowa State is the development of new or stronger research relationships as companies become better acquainted with the faculty.  For example, in 2016, after five years at ISURP, Vermeer Corporation built the Vermeer Applied Technology Hub, where Vermeer’s systems engineering team works with Iowa State researchers and students to develop and create smarter machines in the building’s high bay space.  (As a side note, Vermeer allows the high bay space to be used for ISURP community events, such as the bi-annual HackISU student-run Hackathon that attracts nearly 1,000 students annually and is recognized by Major League Hacking as one of the top ten hackathons in the United States.)

Rising Star Interns teach students about healthy food choices as part of the Know!Grow!Whoa! program. Photo courtesy of Iowa State Extension and Outreach.

Staying true to Iowa State’s land grant heritage, there are programs available to help companies and communities in rural Iowa as well. The Rising Star Internship Program provides ISU students with professional skill development and real world work experience. It is a cooperative effort between Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the Colleges of Design, Human Sciences, and Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Rising Star interns enhance Extension programming efforts and connect Iowans with resources on campus and around the state. They live in the community where they work, usually in rural Iowa, after completing an orientation program that includes learning about Extension, communities, and local needs. They identify a need to address, then design and implement a project.  The interns gain hands-on experience, apply knowledge gained in the classroom, and work together as a multi-disciplinary team. They also have responsibility to develop the internship project, a great learning experience and somewhat unique among internship opportunities.

Rising Star Intern with students.

Since 2014, forty-one (41) students have participated in the program, and now 22 county extension districts provide support. The interns have assisted communities, schools, underserved audiences, producers, and markets, and they have helped raise awareness of local foods and healthy living. In addition, after graduating, two Rising Stars have accepted positions with county extension districts and one intern in 2016 was elected to serve as a council member.

Finally, in response to more companies beginning to help in talent development pre-college, ISURP in 2016 partnered with Ames High School in a pilot program for juniors and seniors dubbed the Ames High Business Engagement Collaborative. Students complete projects individually or in teams for established businesses, startups and local nonprofits, where their skill set is matched to their desired professional acumen. In its inaugural year, nine students completed 55 projects. It was so successful the program will host 30 students for the 2017-18 school year and embed them into ISURP companies and startups.  The following year the program will join forces with a similar countywide initiative.

Read Case Study #1 – CyBIZ Lab: Creating a Website to Improve Intermodal Freight Transportation in Iowa here

Read Case Study #3 – Inclusivity Case Study: 4-H Youth Development Creating a Sense of Place here