The Connection Between Business, Universities, and Student Workers… A Win/Win for All


The current state of business relative to graduating students in 2021 is not particularly positive. The facts are:

  • 91 percent of employers prefer their candidates to have work experience, and 65 percent of them prefer their candidates to have relevant work experience. [1]
  • Average Student Loan debt is $37,172 and average student loan payment is $393 per month. [2]

Most students wait until their senior year in college to apply for jobs. And they need jobs to pay back their student loans.

Given these facts, what more synergistic relationship could exist than the one between business and education? Yet there is an unnatural divide between the two. Intuitively we know that educational institutions should prepare us for life. And a large portion of life is spent at work. Why shouldn’t education equip us for work?

Recently, I had a conversation with Nickolas Lantz, Executive Director of Experiential Learning at the Johns Hopkins University. It was truly inspirational. Nickolas has developed a platform to connect students with business opportunities while they are attending school. In so doing, students can experience the workplace, earn money, and build their resumes prior to graduation. Before you say this is old news, let me describe the innovation.

Mr. Lantz leads what used to be called the Student Employment Services or the Career Center. His vision is to offer students work experiences that enhance their resumes and make money while they are in school. Thus, the career center was renamed the Experiential Learning Center. The platform he spearheaded is called SMILE, which is meant to work in tandem with Handshake, a nationwide platform for graduated students to access job opportunities. As Nickolas describes it, similar to the process of smiling in a business introduction before offering a handshake (at least pre-pandemic), students use SMILE while enrolled at JHU and Handshake as a graduate. Here is how SMILE works.

Johns Hopkins University is like many other schools that are highly disaggregated. There are nine divisions or separate schools on the Homewood Main Campus. Job opportunities used to be by word of mouth or physical postings on a bulletin board.

SMILE is an equal opportunity platform. It levels the playing field with equal access for all students, establishes employment eligibility and allows for onboarding, it posts paid projects at the university and beyond. From the employer's side, those within or outside the university can post job positions in SMILE. Federal work/study students both at the Undergraduate and Graduate levels have access to the site. Employers pay for the internships. The contractual agreement between student and the employer is clear:

  • The supervisor provides guidance as a mentor in which the job relates to at least four core competencies established by the university.
  • The position must be a minimum of 100 hours.
  • The facilitator must follow up with an assessment and guided reflection that answers the university’s GROW model criteria. This capstone conversation includes four questions:
    • How did the experience fit into the academics of the student?
    • What were the learnings from coursework that were enhanced in the work program?
    • What did the student learn that can be applied immediately?
    • What can the student apply in the future?

At the conclusion of the experience, the student receives a certificate of accomplishment.

The SMILE platform is available for off-campus employers as well as those on campus.  It is not a federal work-study position. The advantages from a student perspective are that they get credit for the fieldwork while being paid. The advantage to the participating organization is that they benefit from the current learnings of the student applied in a workplace at a reduced cost without the onboarding/benefits/etc.

Organizations can groom future workers in the process. The guidance offered through mentorship is tailored to the organization. Previously, there has been a wall dividing academics from business which cripples students’ career readiness. SMILE overcomes this disconnect.

In the future, Mr. Lantz sees a movement to integrate experiential learning into the fiber of the curriculum such that it is a requirement and part of the coursework. The goal is to transition students to employees. The network gained through the experience is sufficient to justify the process. Clearly, JHU leads the way as we transition from a view that University is a phase of life to the reality that university should prepare students for work life. But why do you care about this? Here is why. Let’s revisit the statistics at the beginning of this blog.

If you look at the current unemployment data, hiring preferences, and average student loan debt, it becomes apparent that university students provide an untapped labor source. Why not hire students, while they are in school, to work jobs related to their studies? Pay them for their work. Mentor them on the job and provide feedback that encourages the student workers to reflect on the relationship between their studies and their work. In so doing, organizations can gain dedicated workers with current skills and knowledge at a reasonable wage while helping students to offset the costs of education.  That would make anyone SMILE!

[i] NACE Job Outlook 2017 as cited in

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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