Steve Burkhart, CEO of Advanced Micro-Electronics (AME), used to get frustrated trying to find qualified job candidates for the PC-maintenance and -networking company, which is based in Vincennes, Ind. So in 1990, when his company had $1.6 million in sales and 43 employees, Burkhart approached a local junior college, Vincennes University. He worked with Vincennes faculty to create a computer repair program designed around the needs of companies like AME. "We tell Vincennes about the newest, handiest thing," says Burkhart, "and they adapt their program to meet that need." Today more than 50 of Burkhart's 150 employees are Vincennes graduates--and those workers include not just technical employees but also managerial and administrative staff. "To us Vincennes is like a garden," he says. "We nurture it, and it produces fruit."

Large companies have been involved in such "school-to-work" relationships for quite some time. But according to Peter Cappelli, chairman of the management department at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, more and more small companies are entering partnerships with local high schools and colleges. The nature of the programs seems to be changing from "good citizenship" gestures to employment-facilitation programs, with an increased focus on job-specific learning and experience. "Before, small employers weren't into it because it just wasn't economical," he says. "Now they are entering these partnerships out of economic necessity."

The relationships can benefit the schools as well as the businesses. Dean Ackerman, a professor of electronics at Vincennes University, helps coordinate that partnership from the school's side and says AME has much to offer him and his students. For example, Ackerman trains with AME's technicians to stay current on the latest technology.

In return, Burkhart gets heightened visibility with Vincennes graduates. Ackerman says he's under no obligation to send folks AME's way, but Burkhart has been and remains the program's largest single recruiter. "Most years he hires around 5 people," says Ackerman. "And last year he could have hired at least 10, but Intel came in with big bucks to throw around."

Burkhart concedes that recently he has started to lose potential recruits to large companies. "They used to ignore the small schools," he says. "Now everyone's looking in places they weren't looking before." So he's attempting to establish relationships with other trade schools and universities. No wonder: AME had 1997 revenues of $22 million, up from $13 million in 1996. And, says Burkhart, "there's more out there if we can just get the people."

Published on: Apr 1, 1998