A Win for All Involved

Lion ManufacturingAs educators, we are all well-aware that our field is susceptible to fads. Certain ideas or methodologies come into fashion, seemingly out of nowhere, and then fade just as fast. At first glance, it seems like student-run businesses may be one of those fads. As student-run businesses seem to be popping up left and right, it’s tempting to believe that these are just another fad in the educational field that may soon fizzle out. I’m here to tell you why student-run businesses should not be treated as a fad and the many benefits my students receive from participating in a student-run business.

First, for the uninitiated, a student-run business is a business that is operated by students within a school environment. This is usually achieved by having a designated class where students run the business, but it can also be treated as a club or extra-curricular. The exact nature of the business is irrelevant, and just in Indiana alone, there are a wide variety of student-run businesses operating. Just to name a few examples, the scope of some such businesses include t-shirt/apparel sales, food service, wood-working, metal fabrication or laser engraving. Of course this is not an all-inclusive list, and as the number of schools utilizing student-run businesses grows, so will the variety of businesses we see.

Before we get too far, let me preface this by saying every district, every school, every class is different. No two student-run businesses will look exactly the same, nor should they. Each school and business must play to not only their strengths, but also the needs of their community. However, the benefits students and schools receive from such businesses will largely be the same. In this blog we will look at some of those benefits, ie the “Why” for student-run businesses. In a follow up blog (be on the lookout!) I will go into further detail about how to leverage your strengths and your community needs to create a successful student-run business. For now, let’s focus on why student-run businesses can be great for students, schools, and communities!

I am sure there are nearly infinitely many ways in which student-run businesses can improve student, school, and community outcomes. However, for the sake of brevity, let’s just narrow it to four of the biggest reasons why student-run businesses are a bandwagon worth jumping on.

Honing of Soft Skills

One of the most important functions of high school is to prepare their students for future careers or employment. When we were beginning the process of starting a student-run business, part of our process was to discuss the skills needed for employment with local business owners and industry partners. One of the most commonly cited lapse in skills was not the so-called “hard skills.” Ie, the math, science, or technical knowledge to do the job. It was, in fact, the “soft skills” employers were the most concerned about. While these may not be skills in the traditional sense, they are traits and attributes that are desirable in an employee. These include showing up on time, communicating well, dressing appropriately, meeting deadlines, interacting appropriately with customers, etc.

When a student-run business is structured well, it gives a perfect opportunity to teach all of these soft skills employers are looking for. To use my own student-run business as an example: in our business students must apply to be in the program, and every student must go through an interview process to be accepted. This gives students the opportunity to fill out job applications and interview for positions. Also, students are the primary contacts for customers and industry partners, giving them practice in interacting with both customers and other professionals. Since we are primarily a fabrication-based business, the students are generally working with a deadline for each order. Additionally, attendance is factored into the pay structure to emphasize the importance of attendance. By structuring the business in this way, students who are successful in the student-run business will also have honed the soft skills that are in such high demand by employers.

When a student-run business is structured well, it gives a perfect opportunity to teach all of these soft skills employers are looking for.

Reinforcement of Hard Skills

student talking at the front of the classroom
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

While soft skills are important, and often overlooked, hard skills are important in a more obvious manner. Luckily, student-run businesses are also great at reinforcing the hard skills learned in the classroom! Exactly which skills are utilized will obviously vary with the type of business, but you would be hard to find a business that does not reinforce traditional skills.

No matter the function of the business, there will be costs, revenue, and (hopefully) profits involved. Keeping track of these is a great way to reinforce arithmetic, algebra, and spreadsheeting skills. Another common skill, no matter the business function, will be communicating with customers, industry partners, or vendors. In doing so students will need to read and comprehend as well as write effectively.

There will also be the additional hard skills that will be reinforced which are specific to the business function. To use our business as an example, we do a fair amount of custom fabrication. Thus, students must be able to employ engineering skills such as reading technical drawings, operating CNC machinery, programming machines using G and M code, etc. Due to the custom nature of many of our products, students have had to utilize mathematical skills such as applications of geometric/trigonometric relationships, calculating volumes and surface area of solids, converting between angular and translational speeds on an object with varying radius. Our office staff is responsible for writing/answering emails, posting all employee job assignments on a Google Slide deck, keeping our job status sheet up to date on Google Sheets, etc. In the process of doing these tasks, they become fluent with essentially the entire G Suite. Additionally, our design staff utilizes Procreate and Adobe Illustrator for their design software. Over the course of the year, these students will become fluent in both of these softwares, which are staples in the digital design industry.

Make Money!

The main purpose of any business is to make a profit, and student-run businesses are no different in that regard. Although this may not be the main purpose of a student-run business, it is essential to the longevity of the program that your business turns a profit. These profits can be used for equipment maintenance and upgrades, recruitment efforts for the program, or if you are successful enough, you can use it to help other programs at the school.

Starting a student-run business should be an easy sell to administration since it is a program that funds itself! Not only does it fund itself, but if it is well-run and profitable, it can pay for its own improvements and upgrades. This can be a huge selling point for schools looking to attract new enrollees. New, shiny equipment that doesn’t break into the school’s budget is a dream-come-true for administrators looking to attract more students to the district!

The upgrades obtained from your business profits can also have impacts outside of the business itself. For example, the student-run business at my school has a large cross-over with the engineering department. There have been several instances in which equipment or material purchases for the business have also been utilized by the engineering department. This frees up space in the engineering budget, so the engineering department now has the ability to buy more or higher quality materials and equipment. This ability to “share the wealth” means many students and teachers, even ones not directly related to the business, will see the benefits of a student-run business.

A student-run business can be a great way to strengthen the bond between the local community, its businesses, and the school.

Strengthen Bonds With the Community

No school exists in a vacuum. The support of the community surrounding a school can go a long way in the success of a school and its students. A student-run business can be a great way to strengthen the bond between the local community, its businesses, and the school. Finding local businesses to partner with can be a great way to get a student-run business off the ground successfully. The relationship between local industry and business and student-run businesses can and should be mutually beneficial. Local industry and businesses may initially provide support in the form of equipment, money, jobs, or other means of assistance. In return, the student-run business is training future employees of those businesses and making sure those future employees enter the workforce with the requisite hard and soft skills necessary to be productive employees.

To once again use my student-run business as an example, our main industry partner is a local machine shop. They provided us with equipment and funds initially to start up. We now make some of the simpler parts they used to make at their own facilities. This arrangement is beneficial to all parties. Our business has a consistent stream of revenue from these parts while our industry partner still gets the parts they need without using their own machine time and space. Also, looking at the bigger picture, our student-employees are learning machining best practices and concepts using the same type of machines our industry partner utilizes. This will make it a seamless transition when one of our students graduates and decides to work for our industry partner.

Of course, partnerships with local businesses can look a variety of ways. In some instances, the student-run business may sell their products in an already established local shop. The popularity of the established business can be utilized to increase the visibility of the student-run business. Or some student-run businesses may design promotional materials for a local business.

However the partnership between your business and local businesses might look, such relationships provide a bond between the school and the community. These sorts of bonds will not only strengthen your student-run business and school, but the community as a whole!

As an instructor who has seen a student-run business take off from the start to now being an established program at the school, I can personally attest to all of these benefits. But, since we’re talking about student outcomes, why not hear from the students themselves? I had an opportunity to talk to some of my student-employees and ask them some questions about their thoughts on participating in the student-run business. They talk about their day-to-day tasks, the skills they’re gaining, and even give some tips for getting started as a new business.  So, if you are interested in starting your own business or are just curious about what they have to say, be sure to check this out! And check out our website too!