If you’re looking for a diverse workforce, higher ed is place to start

Panel: Partnerships (such as one between Fiserv and Rutgers-Newark) are key to next-generation workforce initiatives

Saying you want to have a diverse workforce — one that represents the makeup of the state — is nice. So are initiatives with fancy titles. Put up a billboard or two and you’ve got a triple play of … not much.

If you really want to have a diverse workforce, you should go to where the next-generation employees are being trained: the higher-education institutions of New Jersey. They are ready to partner.

So said Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of Rutgers University – Newark, on a panel at the recent Business Expo sponsored by the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

Cantor saluted Fiserv, the fintech global giant that is filling out a state-of-the-art complex in Berkeley Heights with thousands of employees.

The company not only has created scholarships for approximately three dozen Rutgers-Newark students a year, but it also has developed an internship program that is leading to full-time employment.

“This is something that will be a real path to innovation for those students for the future,” Cantor said. “And Fiserv is creating grants for local Black and brown businesses working in our entrepreneurship-pioneer programs.

“That kind of fulsome collaboration can make all the difference in the world, both for students and for the field of business itself.”

Fellow panelist Teik Lim, the president of New Jersey Institute of Technology for just over a year, couldn’t agree more.

“When I first arrived here last year, I made it a priority for the institution to engage externally to create mutually beneficial partnerships,” he said. “That’s the only way we can make every student leaving NJIT or any institution the best version of themselves, so they can contribute to society and the economic progress of the state.”

Lim is proud of the fact NJIT is among the Top 20 schools in the country when it comes to graduating engineers of color. He knows how much they are needed.

“Businesses today have a huge shortage of workers with STEM training,” he said. “In order for us to create this pipeline, we have to dig deeper, especially into the underrepresented minority population.”

The National Science Foundation has an initiative called the Missing Millions that says the county needs to tap into the talent from these communities to progress economically.

Internships are a way to do that, Lim said.

“Because education today is very holistic, experiential learning is just as important in getting A’s and B’s in the classroom,” he said. “Mutually beneficial partnerships will help us train the next generation of students in the workforce through experiential learning.”

Job training and internships are just one of the ways businesses can work with higher ed institutions, Bergen Community College President Eric Friedman said.

“Support your community college and public university foundations — whether it’s a tiny donation for the foundation, or it’s some kind of partnership with the college and the foundation,” he said. “Provide scholarship opportunities for students, no matter how small, so that they can move forward.

“It’s a win-win, because you’ll get your name on the scholarship and get recognized for what you’ve done — but it makes such a tremendous difference.”

And, when you do so, really get to know the institutions that are in your backyard.

Andrés Acebo, the new president at New Jersey City University, said the relationship between a school and a business needs to be genuine — and it needs to go both ways.

“One of my first charges with my team was bringing in a focus on what we asked of our partners: If we’re good enough to do business with, then your work is good enough to hire our students,” he said.

Acebo said it’s all about proceeding with intention.

“Higher education, in general, is headed toward a great disruption — the value proposition is being challenged,” he said. “Be the disrupter. Change the business model. Be a catalyst for innovation, for prosperity and empowerment — and that unfolds brilliantly in our communities when we’re tied to businesses.”

Cantor couldn’t agree more.

Whether it’s the school’s partnership with Fiserv or it’s with Braven, a nonprofit that helps to find internships and jobs for recent graduates, Rutgers-Newark and the business community are creating a pathway that ensures that diversity turns into workforce innovation, she said.

“I believe firmly in anchored partnerships — that is, businesses and communities partnering with universities so that we’re each anchoring the notion of equitable growth and social mobility and opportunity,” she said.