Partners in Learning

These days, when pharma wants training, it goes to college.
May 01, 2004

College isn't just for students anymore. It's for companies too. Over the past decade, institutions of higher education have increasingly found that some of their most important stakeholders are their students' employers—and that they can extend their reach and influence by responding to the needs of local and regional business.

Industry has made discoveries as well: that knowledge continually grows obsolescent and needs updating; that professional growth requires more than narrow, job-related training; and that universities, especially today's new breed of entrepreneurial institutions, are flexible, innovative partners.

This article looks at the range of partnerships between higher ed and pharma, from traditional degree programs to sophisticated, tech-enhanced training sequences. The take-away: In the words of Kathy Grayson, editor of University Business magazine, which covers the business of higher ed, "The companies that are going after what they need are getting it. If they're waiting for the schools to come to them, they're going to be left behind."

New Contexts Business training has been part of higher education's role for decades, but in the 1990s that role grew explosively. There are several reasons why:

  • In a time of rapid technological growth, companies became aware of how much their employees needed to learn, and came looking for help.
  • Local governments, focused increasingly on regional economic development, pushed schools to support industry with training.
  • New educational technology created new routes to distribute knowledge, and new possibilities for partnering
  • The rise of for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix created new models of how schools and companies could work together.

The pace of deal making between businesses and higher ed has accelerated in the past two years. "There have been a lot of presidential changes over the past two years, and a lot of very young, progressive presidents are coming into these schools from the corporate sector," says Grayson. "Partnerships with regional and local industry are no-brainers for them."

Life Science Partnerships
School for Selling The simplest form of collaboration occurs when companies provide advice to schools that are developing industry-specific programs for their own students. There's a long history of collaborations of this sort between higher education and pharma. One of the most recent helped create the medical sales major in the department of business administration at the all-women's College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. The program, thought to be the first of its kind, is one of a trio of new sales-related majors at St. Catherine. (The other two focus on business-to-business sales and financial-services sales.) It was launched in 2001, funded and designed with the help of Pfizer.

The school first focused on sales in 1997 when it received a challenge grant from 3M Corporation. "3M recognized two things about their sales force at the time," explains program manager Debbie Stewart. "One, it was predominantly male. Two, many of them would be retiring soon, and 3M had not done what they needed to do to replace them. So they went to half a dozen colleges and universities around the country and said, 'Build us a curriculum that elevates sales to an academic discipline at a professional level.'"

St. Catherine set to work, and within a few years additional sponsors came around, asking for industry-specific programs. One was Pfizer, which provided a list of competencies students needed to develop, and helped administrators decide what existing courses filled the bill and what new ones were required.

The two principal innovations in the curriculum were a course on how to interpret medical research and another on selling to managed care. In addition, students take liberal arts courses, the core sales curriculum, plus anatomy (or chemistry) and physiology, medical terminology, and healthcare economics.

The program also keeps students in close touch with the industry. "From the beginning, we pair them with mentors doing the kinds of jobs they've expressed interest in," Stewart says. "In the introduction course they do an informational interview, getting a sense of what that person's job is all about. As they move forward, they shadow a rep on a sales call or sometimes an entire day of calls. They get a clear notion of what being in that role will be like."

The program is offered both as a major for traditional undergraduates and as a certificate program for students who already hold a bachelor's degree. The first half-dozen degrees in medical sales will be granted this spring.

"The strength of this program is that it kind of gives hiring managers the best of all worlds," says Stewart, who herself once ran a sales force in the field of audiology. "The students have very strong critical thinking skills because of their liberal arts background. They understand business generally and can relate to customers on that basis. They may not have specific product knowledge when they graduate, but they certainly have the buckets to put that information in."

The In-House Classroom When a company helps a university develop an industry-oriented program, it's good for the industry, but there's no guaranteed benefit for the company. As a result, many focus their educational efforts not on possible future hires but on current employees.

Training Trends
One strategy many companies have employed involves bringing an existing college or university program to the company site. Typically companies are able to work out a schedule that suits their employees. The content can be off-the-rack, or company-specific knowledge and practices can be woven into the curriculum. For example, for the past two years, Watson Pharmaceuticals in Corona, California, has offered a 100-hour certificate program in pharmaceutical engineering, taught on Watson's site by nearby California State University–Fullerton.

The program is conducted on a cohort model—which means that a group of students enter together and take all their courses together for the length of the program. It lasts about a year, six weeks on, one week off. "It's open to almost anybody as long as it's along the lines of what they do on the job—or what they will be doing," explains Watson senior training specialist Gregg Sherman.

Watson has put two groups through the course—a total of about 35 people. A third cohort starts in the fall.

The program was created by Cal State–Fullerton's University Extended Education division as one of its regular public offerings. The program consists of five courses, each 20 hours long. Courses cover:

  • Biotechnology and bioprocesses
  • Process engineering in the pharmaceutical industry
  • Facilities design and maintenance
  • Validation and verification
  • Regulatory affairs and quality assurance.

"The courses are taught by industry experts," says Carol Ferguson, business development specialist for the university. "The courses are not just about technical issues, but also hands-on, real-life applications."

The use of professionals as instructors can raise issues, Ferguson explains. "We are currently working with one client, and my usual instructor worked for a direct competitor. We had to make other arrangements. We sign a confidentiality agreement, and our teachers are savvy enough to block their ears when student questions might give away proprietary information."

For Sherman, part of the benefit of the course was the interaction across functions. "In my class, we had a cross section of the company—manufacturing people, quality folks, support functions," he says. "The thing that's hard to measure is how those 20 people now interact together. We feel like we can solve any problem regardless of whether we covered it in the classroom or not."

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