Jake Forsman traveled to Germany to present a leadership development report to atrain GmbH, a global consulting firm whose clients are large pharmaceutical companies.
Forsman is one of 22 graduate students in the Industrial/Organizational Psychology Program at Minnesota State University. Along with his classmates, Forsman is gaining real-world experience locally, in Washington, D.C., and in Europe as an associate consultant in the program’s Organizational Effectiveness Research Group.
On day one, students are told that they’ll need to buy one or two business suits for their face-to-face interaction with clients.
“We got to see it wasn’t just a company over email. We presented our information to the head of the company and got to see what goes on over there,” Forsman said.
Led by professors and staffed by students, OERG is a private consulting practice that specializes in employee selection, training and development. Services include customer and employee surveys, performance improvement and research and statistical analysis.
Using hard scientific methods, Forsman was charged with determining if one of atrain’s questionnaires was effective in helping its clients select and develop leaders.
“That’s why I went into this field in the first place. I wanted to do projects and see changes happen in a company,” Forsman said.
In fact, atrain was so impressed by Forsman and OERG that Forsman and MSU graduate student Jessica Morales were selected to intern there. They spent their summer working at the office in Bamberg, a world heritage site in Bavaria, Germany.
“It was the American version of what a little German town would look like,” Morales said.
Forsman and Morales helped develop a leadership training program for one of atrain’s clients, a large pharmaceutical corporation. OERG has identified three major traits for successful leaders: flexibility, problem-solving and communication skills.
Both students gained valuable global experience because they lived and worked with two other interns from Brazil and Hong Kong. Morales and Forsman also visited the leader-development center and met executives training to be more effective leaders.
“It was interesting because there’s always room to grow even at that level,” Morales said.
OERG charges their clients, but all the money goes back to the program to help fund further projects. The model is especially relevant today amid funding cuts to higher education, because the department generates revenue.
“The faculty doesn’t take any money. We use it for the students and the program. We buy things that benefit all,” said Associate Professor Andi Lassiter.
In addition, OERG’s rates are about 50 percent lower than national firms. It’s a win-win for the clients, university and, especially, the students.
“We are fortunate to bring in the brightest and best students from all over the country,” said Dan Sachau, director of the graduate program in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.
Plus Sachau and his colleagues all have doctorate degrees and a wealth of experience working with large corporate and government organizations.
The graduate program is 20 years old and began taking on clients 10 years ago. It started with a single project for a local computer company followed by an employee opinion survey for Midwest Wireless. First-rate services and a strong alumni and professional network have led to subsequent jobs locally and globally.
“You can see what you’re learning in action,” Morales said.
For instance, an international beef producer had questions about its hiring process. As part of the research, OERG spent a day in the processing plant where they saw 1,000 live cows become steaks. The environment was clean and structured.
“That’s the experience we want students to have. We want them to get into the factory. When you’re out on the floor or in the factory, it brings it to life,” Sachau said.
One of the most exciting trips was to London to test the abilities of pursuit drivers for the London Metropolitan Police. MSU Associate Professor Lisa Perez, an expert in the stress management field, led the study that included measuring drivers’ brain waves and stress levels with EEG’s.
Perez, colleagues and students rode in the back of fast-moving cars through London streets. They went to a training area where they performed movie-quality chases, high speed U-turns and skidding maneuvers.
Graduate student Stevie Collini traveled to Washington, D.C., last year to maintain relationships with clients including the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the United States Marshals Service.
OERG has done a variety of studies for the Air Force on work-life balance. For the United States Marshals Service, OERG has tested the stress levels of employees who are required to work with disturbing images.
“We do meaningful work. The work we do can have an impact on people. We can help people who are protecting us do a job better,” Collini said.
Collini is currently the project manager on a member satisfaction survey of 50,000 members for Catalyst Rx, a leading pharmacy benefits manager.
“When you get into it, it’s manageable, especially with the training from this program,” Collini said.
Collini has already processed 30,000 surveys and Catalyst Rx was so pleased with her productivity, that it’s increasing her workload.
“When you finish the report and see what the numbers mean, that’s rewarding,” Collini said.
Collini also interned for Trinity Health, where she implemented teamwork training to nurses and doctors to improve patient care. Upon graduation, she plans to enter the health care field.
When Collini and her peers receive their master’s degrees from MSU, they will be looking for jobs as external consultants or specialists in human resources departments. And they will have experience on their resumes.
Thanks to their professors and OERG, they will know how to help organizations manage change, transform its culture, improve teamwork, implement training, select and develop leaders, create measures and analyze surveys.
“It’s exciting to have students take classes in a field that’s growing,” Sachau said.
To learn more about OERG, visit www.mnsu.edu/oerg/.