Not many college students can say they saved a major multinational company time, money and space. A partnership between the engineering department at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University (North Carolina A&T) and HanesBrands (HBI) is allowing senior industrial engineering majors to do just that by solving real-world organizational and time management problems for the clothing giant.
While any partnership between corporations and educational institutions has benefits, the ones that provide mentorships and hands-on experience are often the most coveted. “The company has to choose on what level it wants to be involved,” said Stephen J. Oneyear, an associate professor in the historically Black college’s school of engineering, who oversees the collaboration. “The biggest payback is when they dedicate time. Some partnerships are more time-involved than money-involved. The closer they can get to the students, the more likely they are to find students who fit their mold. It takes a while for companies to get involved on campus and recruit. Then there should be job offers.”
This year the partnership involved two different projects in two HBI facilities. Executives from the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based apparel company outlined the problems, drew up the standards and listed the improvements they needed. Student teams went to work, meeting with HBI personnel weekly.
“Our main goal is to share the experience of working together and develop students’ knowledge through practical, applicable projects,” explained Javier Chacon, SVP of global manufacturing operations at HBI, parent company to brands like Hanes and Champion.
Industry leaders and educators agree there needs to be more efforts to expand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and job training in Black communities that have been historically underserved. The U.S. has about 100 historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, which turn out nearly a quarter of all the STEM degrees earned by Black students.
In particular, job-ready experience is critical for students at HBCUs like North Carolina A&T, as the college graduates the highest number of Black engineers in the country. Many students come from lower-income families and often lack mentors.
Given the scope and impact of HBCUs, corporations can make a difference by engaging with and supporting these institutions. Among the best ways to do that is through internships — especially paid ones — that offer practical experience and lead to full-time positions.
HanesBrands takes a holistic approach in its partnerships with HBCUs, ensuring that funding is one part of an overall package that includes access to mentors, hands-on experience, scholarships and internships. North Carolina A&T engineering students are introduced to different jobs in the company’s distribution centers. They also work with HBI managers, engineers and supervisors to learn how they accomplish everyday operational tasks.
“Typically, students are challenged to use their imagination and creativity, as well as their technical knowledge and skills, to help improve current operational processes,” Chacon said. “Among the skills that students practice are process control and improvement, project management, work area and layout design, and methods engineering.
Students often tell their HBI mentors that having the opportunity to visit and work in the facilities was the most valuable. “We believe that this hands-on learning situation is a win-win for students and HanesBrands, as we both gain from the experience,” Chacon said.
The semester-long assignments at the center of the partnership allow students to apply what they learned in the classrooms and prepare for their careers, Oneyear said. “We’re trying this so when they go out into the world, they can be successful,” he noted. “They start to see why we’re teaching what we’ve been teaching.” Students take a one-semester course before the program starts so they know what to expect, and many of the students have also had summer jobs in the industry. “They have to apply their knowledge.” Oneyear explained.
The goal of most assignments was to get more done faster and with less effort. Students first analyzed the existing process HBI uses to accomplish a given task, then tested ways to improve it. “We touched on safety, time studies and plant layout,” Oneyear said, “with the overall goal to establish a standard.”
For example, eight students, assigned to two teams, worked with an HBI distribution center in North Carolina and were assigned to develop a better system for a shipping and loading area and create new procedures for the product "picking" process. In one case, students devised a way to free up three more dock doors, speeding up the time to load trucks.
“Four students were involved with each project — and the aim was not only to teach engineering, but teamwork as well,” Oneyear said.
“These are lifelong skills that will be with them for their entire careers,” Chacon added. “Our seasoned engineers spend time teaching, coaching and mentoring different groups of students while they are in our facilities. Students spend some time learning the different ways we do things in our company and then they are able to go out on the floor and put that into practice.”
The legacy brand also announced in January 2021 a $2 million investment in three HBCUs. Besides North Carolina A&T, HBI is working with Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design and Winston-Salem State University by providing scholarships, internships, mentorships and research grants. The college programs are part of the company’s broader aim to improve the lives of at least 10 million people by 2030.
The overall goal of these partnerships is to ensure that students acquire the skills, technologies and experience necessary to succeed and to further build a diverse and inclusive STEM pipeline. “As we send the graduates into the workforce, we want them to be very successful,” Oneyear concluded.
This article series is sponsored by HanesBrands and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University
Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT. Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.