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Down on the Farm 

When you talk about growing the economy, you're really talking about growing the workers

Didn't you flinch at the news that free-agent baseball player Kevin Brown signed an employment contract for more than $100 million?

He must be one of those status symbols that extremely wealthy people acquire -- you know, the kind where, counter to common sense, the higher the price of the item is, the more demand there is for it.

Fortunately, apart from the world of pro sports, where rich guys such as Brown are the pawns of even richer team owners such as Rupert Murdoch or George Steinbrenner, common sense often prevails.

For instance, take those folks in the high-tech industries. They've picked up on one of baseball's better ideas from the past century -- the farm system, a.k.a. the minor leagues. But, unlike in sports, they pay their minor-leaguers a decent wage.

In one way, though, it is like sports. That decent wage is driven by competition. It all comes back to competition.

Before they've flown the co-op
If the world ran on high-quality eggshells, wouldn't you want all the best chickens in your coop? The business world runs on computers and other high technologies, and the folks in charge want the best programmers and other workers in their educational cooperatives.

"Educational cooperative" refers to an arrangement wherein a company sponsors a student, who then gets paid for the work he or she does for the company. This is the farm system, the minor leagues.

"Employers are wanting to hire students while in school," says Ann Bullock, assistant director of the career-development center at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. "There are so many entry-level jobs in all the major corporations. The corporations are asking themselves: 'How can we get to these people before my competition does?' And by the time the corporations offer the graduate a job, they don't have to invest a whole lot in time and training."

University recruitment in and of itself isn't new to the business world, nor are internships, in which students spend time with a company but usually at their own expense. What is relatively new is the emphasis on paid student workers.

Why the rush?
In the information-technology area, at least, it's simple supply and demand.
"There aren't enough candidates to fill the positions," says Leslie Lantow, director of career services at Harris-Stowe State College. "Higher education is not keeping up with the demand of the employer. Students are getting theoretical learning from the academic classroom, but they're getting practical application from co-ops and internships."

Lantow says that the labor market has a lot to do with whether an employer will remain in a region and that St. Louis has had a hard time filling high-tech positions.

"It's either that our students aren't making the grade or that not enough are being exposed to those fields," Lantow says. "International students on an F-1 visa are having no problem getting corporate sponsors. Business and industry are doing a lot of partnering with educational institutions."

She says the educational-business consortium is all originating with the high-tech people.

"I'm from Chicago," Lantow says, "and up there Motorola has done this for years. Motorola is reaching into the middle schools and even the elementary schools and doing classroom presentations. These are the careers for the 2000s, and they want students to identify with continued on page

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those skills. They try to get them in camps and internships all through high school and college."

Lantow says the shortage of supply may stem partly from not getting students interested in high tech at an early enough age.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that our secondary educational system doesn't have the right technology to get students interested in this," Lantow says.

How can this be corrected?
"It comes down to money and how it is spent," says Lantow. "It comes down to money and personnel. We need classes in these areas at the high-school level."

Locally, larger corporations have few if any programs focused on students as early as high school. But that could soon change.

"There are two local companies that are supposedly looking at finding talent sooner than college," says Jada Reese, the local managing director of Inroads, a national and international organization whose goal is to get students into professional positions.

Inroads is available for all students but, Reese says, focuses on African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans. Much of Inroads' work is with college students, but not all of it.

"We have a precollege component," says Reese. "We are identifying talent as early as junior year."

And, Reese says, with her college students in the health-related area and the technologies, "You can't get enough kids for them."

Pay as you go
But isn't this more about what's going to help the companies than what helps the students? Not necessarily. Some students pay their way through school with what they earn from co-op programs.

"I took some time off from school to do co-op work, but I was still able to graduate in six years and have it all paid off," says Matt Roos, a St. Louis native who graduated from the University of Missouri-Rolla with a degree in electrical engineering and now works in suburban Washington, D.C.

At Monsanto Co., where most of the co-op students are in computer programming or bio-informatics, the pay is better than what a lot of people make after graduating from college.

"They can make good money," says Larry O'Neill, Monsanto's director of public affairs. For Monsanto's co-op students, the range of salaries is $2,300-$3,200 a month, he says. "That's 40 hours a week. They usually take a semester off from school to do the co-op. The higher range of pay is for kids closer to graduation. They're in a variety of areas, but it's mostly the computer area."

Aside from the monetary aspects, SIUE's Bullock tells students that it's important to work while in school, especially if the job is career-related.

And, still, there is the money.
"They get very good pay," Bullock says. "We have students that are making $15-$20 per hour. We've got 160 students doing co-op (at SIUE), and most of them are in engineering and computer science."

Not surprisingly, computer science and engineering are two of the hottest areas for new graduates (see main story).

"Talent trend of the future"
So are co-ops here to stay, or are they just a fad, a blip on the screen?
During the 1980s, when corporate downsizing swung into full gear, many large companies cut back on their college-recruiting efforts, and some eliminated them entirely. Now these companies are finding that to compete for the top students and potential employees of the future, they need to have relationships in place on campus.

"We're reviewing our process for the future," says Kim Cousin, a staffing consultant with Monsanto's human-resources department. "We're looking to have a very powerful presence on campuses.

"Co-ops are the talent trend of the future. We don't want to miss out on bright, fresh talent. It works both ways. We expose students to Monsanto. We bring an intelligent mind-share."

And Monsanto certainly won't be alone out there.
"It's very competitive," Cousin says. "We're taking our alums back on campus with us to help recruit. We're looking for the best and the brightest."

It seems that a farm system is firmly in place, thanks to good old competition.

-- Michael Kunz

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