In Service of a Sector

How a single phone call led one business school to tailor a new program to the needs of Singapore’s international commodities sector.
In Service of a Sector

MANY BUSINESS schools have heard messages similar to this from their corporate partners: Today’s graduates do not have the skills companies want most in new hires. But what happens when an entire industry, backed by a government agency, asks a business school for a program customized exactly to its needs?

That’s what happened in 2014, when International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, a government agency that promotes Singaporean companies engaging in international trade, called Ravi Kumar at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). IE Singapore representatives asked Kumar, then dean of Nanyang Business School (NBS), whether his school could create a program tailor-made to develop talent for Singapore’s commodity sector. To serve its member companies, the agency wanted the program to be cross-disciplinary, bringing together students and faculty from three areas central to international trade and manufacturing: business, engineering, and maritime studies.

NBS faculty worked quickly, collaborating with faculty in NTU’s College of Engineering and executives of IE Singapore member companies, to design the NTU International Trading Programme (ITP), a suite of specializations that students can complete as part of their four-year undergraduate degree programs. The specialized courses are designed to give students in one major insights into the complementary disciplines. For instance, engineering students can pursue an 11-course second major in business, and maritime students can pursue a five-course specialization in business.

“ITP courses were designed to expose students to the entire commodity value chain through topics such as geology and metallurgy, international tax, trading laws, commodities finance and trading, enterprise risk management, ship chartering, and trade practice,” explains Kumar, now Shaw Chair Professor and director of NTU’s Centre for Business of Culture.

Initially, NTU ITP focused on producing graduates for companies in markets such as metals, minerals, and oil and gas. But since ITP’s inception, agricultural commodities firms have also joined the program.

AN INDUSTRY-FOCUSED CURRICULUM

Launched in 2016, ITP welcomed an inaugural cohort of 35 students, which grew to 84 in 2017. As of January 2018, the program enrolled 180 students: 24 from engineering, 77 from maritime studies, and 79 from business. Currently, four faculty teach ITP courses, including two from NBS and two from the College of Engineering. The program is delivered with the support of the university’s Centre of Excellence International Trading (CEIT), and it is coordinated with the help of five CEIT staff members, as well as dedicated staff and faculty from both the business and engineering schools.

The ITP includes many pre-existing courses, but some courses were created for the program, based on industry feedback. New courses cover topics in international tax and trading law, commodities geology and metallurgy, commodities trading and risk management, and an industry-specific seminar. Most students take two to three years to complete the ITP track.

The program recently added a study abroad component—once each semester, students travel overseas for five days to visit the facilities of corporate partners to gain further insights into their businesses and operations. The first such experiential trip was held last October, when students went to an Indonesian plantation owned by Wilmar International, an agribusiness group, to get a firsthand picture of agricultural commodities trading.

In March of this year, students traveled to Perth, Australia, to learn more about the trading of metal and mineral commodities. There, they visited an aluminum mine owned by mining and metals company South32; an oil refinery owned by oil and gas company BP; and the Perth office of the energy company Chevron. They also toured facilities at the Western Australia School of Mines at Curtin University.

In the second year of the program, all students complete a credit-based internship at a partner company. Most students complete other internships during vacation breaks to gain experience and exposure in the industry.

At least once per semester, CEIT holds extracurricular activities such as career fairs, networking sessions, and seminars where ITP students can meet with industry practitioners. These events also can be informal—for example, last year, the center invited ITP students to sit down to lunch with 20 of its advisory board members.

THE PERKS OF PARTNERSHIP

Currently, 19 companies are signed on as ITP partners, including energy companies such as China Aviation Oil and metal and mining companies such as Eagle Metal International Pte. Ltd. The newest sponsors to come on board include BP and Dole Asia. The school anticipates 25 companies will sign on as partners to the ITP and CEIT in 2018.

Each sponsor donates funds to support CEIT and ITP over four years. All donations are held by CEIT in an endowed fund established by the university. Companies are asked to donate at least S$200,000 (approximately US$151,000), but some have donated as much as S$400,000. Because of its interest in supporting Singapore’s international trading sector, the government matches each of these dollars with S$1.5, so that a single company represents at least S$500,000 worth of support.

ITP provides several opportunities for its corporate partners to have hands-on involvement in the program’s design. For instance, ten executives from partner companies participate on the ITP advisory board. At their suggestion, the school has relaxed a previous requirement that engineering students in ITP must pursue double majors in business, and it has broadened selection criteria for scholarship candidates to include factors beyond academic performance.

In addition, company representatives act as guest lecturers in courses and participants in speaker series, presenting their expertise in areas such as supply chain finance and agricultural commodities. They inform faculty about current industry directions and provide their recommendations on the skill sets their companies need most.

As part of the program, ITP corporate partners have opportunities to interact and learn from each other. NTU organizes closed-door forums on timely topics for the global commodities and trade markets. In October 2016, the university invited ITP firms to a discussion forum on the impact of the recent U.S. presidential elections on the global market. Earlier this year, partners came together to discuss the impact of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress on geopolitics and the economy in Asia.

Each year, NTU provides all partner companies with a book of résumés from graduating students, most of whom are offered permanent positions after graduation.

EXPANDING THE MODEL

NBS is taking what it has learned in its implementation of the ITP to launch an undergraduate specialization in applied wealth management this year, in partnership with NTU’s Wealth Management Institute and a Singaporean financial institution. The university, too, is exploring the possibility of a similar program dedicated to gamification, which could be delivered jointly with the School of Computer Science and Engineering; the School of Arts, Design and Media; Singapore’s Economic Development Board; and Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority.

Kumar emphasizes that collaborations between the university and specific industries provide equal benefits to students and employers. Students not only gain access to real-world environments, but they also have more direct routes to internships and full-time positions in their chosen industries, giving them “head starts in their careers,” says Kumar. “Such programs also save companies time in training new recruits and identifying high-potential talent.”