College of Charleston’s plan to help students get tech jobs: Move the employers next door | Business

Sebastian Van Delden has booked up his new office space with some of the biggest names in Charleston business, luring them with waterfront views and access to sought-after talent.

He isn’t sure how the space will be used. Neither do his tenants, exactly.

Van Delden, chair of the College of Charleston’s computer science department, says that’s the point: He didn’t tell companies how to use the space. He just wants to keep them nearby, close enough that they might bump into students and help them land jobs.

“All the pieces are now in place,” he says. “Now we see what happens.”

The office is being shared by some of Charleston’s largest technology employers — Benefitfocus Inc., Boeing Co., Robert Bosch, Booz Allen Hamilton and Mercedes-Benz — and it’s relatively small. Each company will get a table in a communal workspace next to a student center for the computer science department.

The effort is part of an expansion effort for the fast-growing department, which has seen its enrollment swell in recent years. The college leased extra space this year next to its offices and classrooms, which sit beside the South Carolina Aquarium on the Charleston Harbor.

The roughly $100,000-a-year extension opened a few new possibilities for the college, Van Delden says. It added a lounge for students to work and a workshop fitted with 3D printers and a robotic arm they can program. The partner companies will cover their portion of the rent.


Computer Science Center

College of Charleston computer science chair Sebastian Van Delden works with a Staubli TX40 robotic arm at the school’s new computer science student center. Brad Nettles/Staff

But as the plans came together, Van Delden says he kept thinking of a program he saw on a trip to Israel this year. A university in Jerusalem, he says, had set aside space for startups to work alongside students. He thought about replicating it here.

Startups, however, didn’t seem like the right target. The Charleston Digital Corridor rents space to early-stage firms a few blocks away. Other co-working spaces are likewise catering to young companies that want flexible space and low rent.

So he focused instead on big names without a presence on the peninsula. The idea is they might use the college’s building to hold off-site meetings or give workers a change of scenery. He also hopes the office space could make it easier for students to intern with the firms and for their workers to take classes.

“We didn’t prescribe any mandates to the companies, like what they were required to do here. These companies have very different business models so we just want it to very naturally evolve,” Van Delden says. “Just being there helps you talk to the students.”

The companies’ plans vary. Boeing South Carolina, for instance, plans to work with a team of students on a capstone project in the spring, and it will give them access to its corner of the office. Booz Allen Hamilton, on the other hand, sees it as future meeting space.


Computer Science Center

Local businesses will use this room at the new College of Charleston computer science student center. Brad Nettles/Staff

But both see it as a recruiting tool, of sorts. It’s a way to meet with students informally and to keep up with what their prospective workers are learning. Bob Williams, chief technologist of Booz Allen’s Charleston office, says it’s a way to introduce students to what the firm does, even if the government contractor doesn’t have a household name.

“Keeping up with (Charleston’s growth) can be challenging at times,” Williams said. “You are fighting for top-tier talent.”

Ernest Andrade, director of the Charleston Digital Corridor, a technology-focused economic-development group, sees the initiative as an encouraging step. He thinks it will help align the school’s plans with industry’s needs, a key goal as the region’s nascent tech sector expands.

The College of Charleston has likewise grown its computer science program, posturing itself as a pipeline of future tech workers in a region hungry for them. The department’s enrollment has grown by about 50 percent in the past five years to nearly 300 students.

“This is the first significant step that the College of Charleston has taken to align their department, their educational programming with the interest of industry, and it’s very encouraging,” Andrade said. “The educational programming that is offered by our institutions is going to define how successful our economy can become.”

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.