Staff, faculty, and students find triple win in Professor Partner program
April 23, 2012
Every business leader wants their staff to have access to professional development, mentorship, and ongoing opportunities to learn new techniques and technologies. Part of the strategy employed by Kittelson & Associates, Inc. (KAI) to provide this for their staff is to turn to a handful of university professors with whom the firm has established relationships. KAI established its Professor Partner program about 20 years ago, pairing staff with professors on topics ranging from project management training to making connections within the Transportation Research Board (TRB), Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), and other industry organizations.
The program’s strengths include its flexibility, which allows professors to devote varying degrees of time depending on their own workload. This flexibility extends to KAI staff at all levels who are encouraged to reach out to Professor Partners at any time for guidance, project support, or counsel. The loose structure of the partnership allows the professors to better understand the industry, how KAI works as a firm, and improves their relationships with KAI staff.
Arguably the biggest benefit of the program is the personal relationships that are formed. “We have a number of great success stories within the firm where staff utilized their Professor Partner as a mentor, coach, senior resource on projects, and assisted in their professional development,” says Mark Vandehey, KAI’s chief executive officer. “That relationship has been most effective when the professors have been able to develop those personal connections with the staff.”
Longtime Professor Partner John Mason, Vice President for Research at Auburn University, is now an external member of KAI’s Board of Directors. He also travels to each of the company’s offices on a regular basis to provide senior strategic guidance on, among other things, market development and application of the Highway Safety Manual in federal safety quality efforts.
“These are all things we weren’t doing five years ago – surely not fifteen years ago – and it’s a great example of how the Professor Partner program has evolved,” says Brian Ray, a principal engineer in KAI’s Portland office, about the opportunities working with Professor Partners has provided.
John says the evolution from a casual, professional engagement to being on KAI’s board and visiting its offices has been a mutually beneficial partnership.
“As a university administrator, I don’t get to do as much transportation work as I used to. This gives me a chance to work with younger and senior staff, and the flexibility to have a little professional practice time,” he says.
In turn, his interdisciplinary work at Auburn allows him to bring a broader perspective when he meets with KAI staff.
“In the transportation area sometimes we have little blinders on where we only see what goes on in that world,” John says. “In my work with more than a dozen colleges within the university, I can bring some alternative ideas that the average practitioner might not be exposed to.”
Purdue University’s Darcy Bullock is a Professor Partner who worked with KAI to develop Bluetooth™ technology to track vehicle speeds and other travel patterns. Darcy serves as the director of Purdue’s transportation research program and says he benefits from maintaining long-term relationships from his former students who now work at KAI.
“Sometimes you learn as much from your students after they leave as they did in your class because they are out there on the ground,” he says, adding the relationship helps universities disseminate new technologies and practices as well.
“Success for us at the university is not just us doing stuff in our lab, but seeing it implemented worldwide. Ultimately, universities exist to have an impact and transfer knowledge,” Darcy says.
Joe Schofer, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department at Northwestern University, became a Professor Partner more than a decade ago because he was intrigued by KAI’s focus on education, training, and professional development.
“I think that’s very unusual in the private sector and I found that very appealing. I still do,” he says.
The relationship has benefited many of Joe’s students who have done internships with KAI. Some decide to pursue a career in transportation engineering and some do not. Joe views both situations as a success.
“I’ve had kids come back after a quarter with Kittelson and be really fired up because they’ve learned something they didn’t know before,” he says. “Even the kids who come back with a different goal are a victory because they’ve been able to make an informed decision.”
Mark and Brian say they see the Professor Partner continuing to evolve and expand. It most likely will grow to include not just university professors, but likeminded professionals who share common interests. Mark says he hopes the program can serve as a model for other companies.
“We share this story with other firms because it’s a great opportunity for the firms and the professors themselves. I think other firms could benefit from this type of program as well,” he says.