Williamson Dean Values Keeping Students in Mahoning Valley

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Students graduating from Youngstown State University’s Williamson College of Business Administration have more opportunities than ever in what remains a scorching and competitive job market.

The challenge is to attract more students to the university and then keep as much of this talent as possible in the Mahoning Valley and the surrounding region, an effort that many agree is vital to the growth and development of the community.

It’s among the priorities of Kelly Wilkinson, who has led the business school as its dean since February 2022.

“Retaining talent is key,” she says. “Another is making sure our students are prepared professionally and academically.”

Over the last year, more than 200 changes have been made to the business college curriculum in response to the rapidly changing professional workplace, Wilkinson says. The latest incarnation of the Certified Public Accountant exam, for example, has come with a 117-page “blueprint” identifying and explaining changes bound for that certification.

“Our department is taking in what these changes are,” she says. “As we’re building curriculum, we’re building in certifications. Our faculty is committed.”

That’s important because Wilkinson projects demand for graduates will only grow. “As we continue to listen to employers, adjust our curriculum, there’s just going to be more demand,” she says. “We need more students.”

Facing Challenges

Wilkinson took the helm at a difficult time for YSU and universities in general, as funding and enrollment numbers are well off those of a decade ago. Recruiting students in both a competitive labor market and in an area whose demographics show a shrinking population has its challenges, Wilkinson says.

According to preliminary enrollment summaries for fall 2022, the Williamson College reported 1,478 undergraduate students and 555 enrolled in graduate programs for a total of 2,033 students.  Spring 2023 enrollment shows 1,409 undergraduate, 571 graduate students, a total of 1,908. In fall 2021, the business school reported 1,570 undergraduate and 516 graduate students and a total of 2,086. There were 1,659 undergraduates enrolled and 267 graduate students during the fall semester of 2020 for a total of 1,926.

The business school is meeting these challenges with creative strategies to attract new students and prepare them for careers, Wilkinson says.

“We’re making changes on how we approach high school students, community college students, or those who have a degree but want something more,” she says.

An important facet is reaching out to these groups via those students already enrolled in the business college, Wilkinson says. “We’ve got to use some of our best resources and that’s our students,” she says. “Our business students are our best recruiters.”

Work-life balance is important today to many students, for example, and it’s incumbent upon the business college and the university to tailor its message to this generation, Wilkinson says. “How do we change the old narrative?” she asks rhetorically.

A central component is to sell the success of students who have graduated from Williamson’s various programs. “I’ve had students that have had multiple offers, signing bonuses – they can choose where they live,” she says. “The opportunities are phenomenal.”  Getting the word out through social media platforms is important, too, she says with emphasis.

One student last year took a position with Amazon just after graduation. “He’s earning more than I did at my first Ph.D. job,” Wilkinson says.

Most students in the school are enrolled in YSU’s accounting and finance programs, Wilkinson says. Over the last three years, the university’s MBA program – now offered online – has attracted more than 500 students; 245 of whom graduated this spring.


Central to the strategy of the Williamson College are the paid internship and co-op programs established in partnership with the private sector. Many of these internships are with nearby organizations, creating a direct pipeline between students and employers in the Mahoning Valley.

Recent data provided by Skill Survey show that 94% of respondents who brought on a business college intern from YSU said they would work with the students again given the opportunity.  “Ninety percent of our students that have an internship are placed [in a full-time job] within six months,” Wilkinson says.

On a national level, employers ranked 46% of the business college’s students as either “accomplished” or “advanced” – the two highest ratings, she says.  The national average is 40%.

This summer, 137 students enrolled in the college have internships, according to Christina O’Connell, director of the center for career management. Another 102 interns were active during the spring semester, she says.

“These are in manufacturing, management, human resources – we’re everywhere,” O’Connell says.  On average, these interns earn $18 per hour.

Between 55% and 60% of Williamson College students complete at least one internship before graduation for academic credit, she says.

YSU interns have found opportunities with Ultium Cells, Foxconn and the Cafaro Co., as well as area banks, accounting firms, and nonprofit organizations, she says. “They’re in all of our majors – accounting, finance, communication, telecommunications – there’s not a shortage anywhere.”

Meet the Employers

Other career initiatives include a Meet the Employers Day, held once in every fall and spring semester. Most of the 60 or so organizations that attend are local and provide students with an opportunity to present themselves and deliver first impressions before a prospective employer.

Ted Schmidt, PNC Bank regional president, says Meet the Employers Day is a valuable event that presents an opportunity to interact with students and even coach them on important soft skills, such as communication.

“It’s that first impression that counts,” Schmidt says. “If someone is struggling to communicate, we’ll spend a few extra minutes with them and tell them what they need to work on. We filter down those students and hopefully get them to do an internship with us.”

The bank places an emphasis on the fall session of Meet the Employers day, Schmidt says. “We focus on the students in their sophomore and junior years,” he says. “We have a summer internship between junior and senior year. But we’re trying to stay one year ahead of it; all of the other employers are trying to grab talent sooner.”

Schmidt, a YSU alumnus who sits on the advisory committee for the Williamson College, has participated in professional development events the school hosts. “I give advice such as the importance of networking, communication skills,” he says.

Those who attend these events are among the best students, equipped with high grade point averages and strong résumés, Schmidt says. “But it all comes down to communication,” he says.  “We’re working more and more with students just to prepare them for that.”

As for Schmidt, he’s passionate about YSU and working with the business college, noting Wilkinson’s drive. “I love the energy, especially Kelly’s. She’s a go-getter.”

Export Program

Business school students were selected this summer to participate in  Williamson College’s Ohio Export Internship program through the Ohio Department of Development.

The program has operated at YSU for nine years, says Moussa Kassis, director of the Export Assistant Network in the Ohio Small Business Development Center situated in the Williamson College.

“The whole idea behind this is retention,” Kassis says. Out of the 14 students selected for the program, just three are working in the Columbus area, while the remaining students are placed with companies within the Pittsburgh-Youngstown-Cleveland corridor, he says.

“First, we train them on the knowledge and skills of exporting. We do the training in the classroom exactly the way we do training in the boardroom,” Kassis says. Then, the program matches an intern with a participating exporting company that is engaged in global commerce. “We train them on knowledge and skills of exporting and hands-on for a full semester,” he says.

Among the regional companies that have accepted interns are Humtown Products, Kent Displays Inc., Columbiana Boiler, and Haltec Corp.

Under the program, the state of Ohio will reimburse the company 50% of the paid internships, which averages $17 per hour, Kassis says. Some students – approximately 32% – have their internships extended through the fall semester and sometimes into the following spring, he notes.

“About 22% lead to full-time jobs in exporting and international business,” Kassis says. “This is how we design it to keep our students in the Valley.”

Staying Local

Wilkinson says that most students would prefer to stay closer to home and companies in the region know the value of hiring a graduate of the Williamson College. While the allure of taking a position in a different city is tempting, she says companies across the Mahoning Valley have also stepped up and look to YSU for young talent.

“There’s a lot of offers to lure them out of the area. But the local community is rising to the occasion as well,” Wilkinson says. “A lot of students want to stay close. Or they might take a job for a couple of years and then come back.”

The school is partnering with a specific company – Wilkinson declines to disclose its name at this time – that is making new investments in its Youngstown office in part because of its prospective relationship with YSU and the Williamson College. “One of their team members said that we decided to do this because Youngstown State students know how to work,” she says. “Not only are they prepared academically and professionally, they understand what it means to work.

Pictured at top: Kelly Wilkinson has led the business school since February 2022.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.