John Hanson was first introduced to geographic information systems (GIS) while studying for a degree in environmental science and education at the University of Redlands in Southern California. He was so intrigued by the powerful map-making software that he went out, sought, and landed a volunteer job as a GIS analyst intern for the city of Ontario, California. Three months later, it turned into a modestly paid position. But his career might have stalled right there if he hadn't stumbled on the latest innovation in professional education: the corporate university.

Corporate universities are sprouting up all over. Although corporations have always trained a portion of their workforce on the job, the tight labor market of the last decade, particularly in the fast-moving high-tech sector, has pushed many companies to dramatically improve their training programs. And instead of simply adding a few courses on the latest software tool, these businesses are creating complete universities that are integrated programs covering every facet of an employee's professional development, ranging from learning how to operate a word processor to acquiring the skills needed to manage a multinational corporation.

Hanson stumbled upon the corporate university as a way to enhance his career while doing a research project on the Salton Sea that involved the use of GIS software developed by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) based in Redlands, California. He enrolled in classes conducted by ESRI to learn how to better use their software. But, instead of taking time off from work to travel to the ESRI campus, Hanson began taking courses in their online GIS curriculum from the comfort of his own office. "I can be more productive by learning and training" at the Virtual Campus, he says, because taking classes from his office cuts down on the amount of time he would otherwise have to spend commuting. For his employer, this means that he's productive for more hours in the day. But taking the initiative to build his GIS skill set has not just paid off in terms of increased knowledge, it has also paid off handsomely with a promotion to GIS Specialist. "My pay has gone up by 140%, and I am now receiving benefits and retirement," says Hanson.

Despite all the buzz surrounding the corporate university, no one is exactly sure what one is. "It pretty much means what you want it to mean," says Kevin Wheeler, president of Global Learning Resources, a consulting company based in Fremont, California, that has helped create dozens of professional learning programs for businesses. But despite the uncertainty, for a graduate student in the sciences looking to use a corporate university to enhance their skills for a transition to an industry career, they can be divided into two broad categories: "internal" universities that train a corporation's own employees, and "external" universities that will teach anyone how to use the company's product.

Motorola and General Electric (GE) have two of the most extensive internal university systems. These universities, explains Wheeler, are used to drive corporate strategy by teaching employees skills that are essential to the company's business. For example, when GE expanded into China, employees were trained in Chinese business, culture, and language. This kind of corporate university can also be an important tool during a merger to help forge a single corporate identity by teaching employees about the new corporate culture.

Corporations such as ESRI, Cisco, Microsoft, and Novell, on the other hand, offer external universities that will teach anyone how to use their products. These companies profit directly from tuition fees and indirectly by increasing the visibility of their product through a cadre of specially trained professionals. Students of these universities often gain valuable, and highly marketable, skills.

External institutions are particularly popular in the information technology industry. "There is a huge shortage of professionals in information technology," says Don Fields, director of training at Cisco. And that has translated into a surge of students into corporate programs that teach systems administration and network support and design. Several companies, including Microsoft, Cisco, and Novell, even offer industry-recognized certificates in computer network engineering. The certificates are important because "an employer needs proof that the employee has the knowledge and skills they need," says Novell's director of education, Lutz Ziob.

But these courses aren't cheap. Depending on whether you take them online or in an instructor-led course at a local community college, the coursework leading up to the lowest level of certification can cost in excess of $2000. On the other hand, Ziob estimates that the starting pay for network engineers at that certification level is about $60,000 per year. And if you want to keep your networking skills up to date, they are the only game in town. "The rate of technological innovation is getting faster," says Toby Richards, Microsoft's director of higher education, and traditional educational institutions can't keep up.

Although "internal" corporate universities put less stress on the pocketbook--most students draw their usual salary while they learn--career changers looking for training may find them less useful. "Our university is primarily for the benefit of our employees," says Arun Agrawal, dean of Motorola University. But the pressures of the tight labor market are forcing some companies to reconsider this narrow view of the corporate university.

Wheeler says he's seen a tremendous growth in the number of corporations that link recruitment and education into a talent production pipeline. "Today, companies rely on human capital, which they can either acquire or create," Wheeler tells Next Wave, "and many companies are finding that it is faster to create it." General Electric and Charles Schwab, he says, are leaders in forging talent pipelines to train new employees.

And from an employer's standpoint, corporate universities don't just turn out skilled employees. Many business leaders also believe that corporate universities help to instill employee loyalty. By providing free on-the-job training in important new job skills to their employees, corporations are able to retain a higher percentage of their most skilled employees. "A corporate university is a great retention tool," says Wheeler. And employees benefit from the opportunity to add to their skill set without going back to school. "Skills get obsolete quickly," says Agrawal. "So every Motorola employee gets a minimum of 5 days of training per year, and most take 10."

How do career changers find their way into the company pipeline? It can be tricky, because not all corporations have one, and those that do may not actively advertise it. Wheeler's advice is to pick a few interesting companies and then get on the Internet. As you search, "look for the ones that teach a well-defined curriculum," Wheeler tells Next Wave. "Those that work only on individual skills like public speaking generally fail."

And when you do find a good corporate university, use it! "People with multiple skill sets are the ones who move up," says Wheeler.