Workplace MBA: Grad school comes to the office

Point Park University program brings classes right down the hall


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Every Tuesday since August 2009, 14 employees of engineering firm GAI Consultants have convened in a company training room at 4 p.m. The group -- comprising managers and executives, including the company's CEO -- stayed in the office until 8 p.m. to take classes taught by faculty from Point Park University's graduate business school.

Last weekend, all 14 received their master's in business administration degrees along with the rest of Point Park's Class of 2011.

They are among the first to earn MBAs through Point Park's on-site program that delivers faculty and courses to businesses rather than having the students come to the school.

"There are a lot of busy executives who would like to just walk down the hall to take a class," said Gary DeJidas, president, CEO and chairman of GAI, which has about 750 employees in 10 states and a large portfolio of projects, including redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site, Rankin; infrastructure for the Summerset at Frick Park residential community, Squirrel Hill; and site development for Settlers Ridge commercial center, Robinson.

Mr. DeJidas, 60, a member of Point Park's board of trustees who earned his bachelor's degree at the school, said he was intrigued when administrators several years ago told him about their plans to develop an on-site MBA for employees at U.S. Steel Corp. He figured his management team and up-and-coming leaders at GAI could benefit from MBA courses that would expose them to finance, the global economy and organizational behavior -- topics not covered in the ongoing technical training GAI typically provides for its engineers.

He also enrolled because, "That's my leadership style. I wouldn't ask them to do anything I wouldn't do."

He encouraged other top managers, including the chief operating officer and chief financial officer, to sign on, as well as group leaders and managers from some of GAI's 21 other offices.

Typically during the MBA classes, eight members of the group were on-site at GAI's headquarters in Homestead while the other six plugged in remotely via Web conferencing from Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla.; Philadelphia; Cincinnati; and Charleston, W.Va. When the students from headquarters were traveling, they could participate via the Internet.

Their courses were the same as those being taught at Point Park's Downtown campus. But when discussions and problem-solving occurred, the focus frequently turned to issues pertinent to GAI's business.

"It was structured, but we challenged the professors," said Mr. DeJidas. "It was a good learning environment; I never sat back and put my feet up on the desk."

Like MBA students elsewhere, the GAI employees had to complete projects and presentations that consumed many hours of their weekends, he said.

GAI paid half of the tuition for each employee, "all of whom I'm very proud of ... They stuck with it," said Mr. DeJidas, who has established a screening committee to recruit a new MBA class from GAI.

John Byrne, former editor of BusinessWeek.com who now runs a digital media site about business and business education, said it was rare for a business school to deliver MBA degrees directly to a company setting.

"There are plenty of custom business programs created specifically for companies by many of the top schools, including Northwestern and Duke; but they typically grant certificates, not degrees. So it's quite a bold and creative move to give degrees for an on-site corporate program."

Angela Isaac, dean of Point Park's School of Business, said each course the university delivered to GAI was accelerated and ran for seven weeks.

Typically the degree takes two years for part-time students, although the school offers some accelerated options, including one in which students can complete an MBA in 12 months by taking full-day Saturday classes. The employees enrolled in the program had access to the same resources as the rest of the graduate students, including the school library and workshops.

Companies such as GAI that partner with Point Park for on-site delivery probably won't see their employee-students grab the degree and bolt for another job, Ms. Isaac said.

"This is a way for a company to offer a benefit they have an interest in ... an option for a company to actually get involved in employees' education. This is for companies who are farsighted about benefits and the development of their employees."

After a sluggish couple of years in the job market for MBA graduates, recruiting is picking up as the economy recovers, said Mr. Byrne.

"Some of the biggest employers of MBAs are significantly increasing their intake of grads. So while unemployment remains high, employment of freshly minted MBAs will be very strong."

He cited a "two-tier job market" in which "those who are highly educated are far more protected than those who aren't ... Despite all the controversy and hand wringing over the value of an MBA, it still is the degree to have if you want to succeed in business."


Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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