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It's also a dynamic field, one in which textbooks and curricula quickly go out of date. "I would love to see a search engine optimization course with up-to-the-minute data," says Tom Cox, CEO of Golfballs.com. "But in order to do that, a curriculum would need to be developed in real time."
Cox, who gives guest lectures to business students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where his company is located, says he's found that some students who have taken college courses related to e-commerce are ready for entry-level positions at his company. In part, he says, that's because of their general knowledge obtained through personal use of the web and online social networks.
Students who spend dozens of hours each week on social networks like Facebook and Twitter no doubt can talk intelligently about social media, says Jim Flanagan, executive vice president of human resources at e-commerce technology provider GSI Commerce Inc. But companies involved in online retailing need employees who can think strategically about social media and figure out ways to use it to help clients, he says. He says GSI is unlikely to hire anyone without at least three years of work experience.
The lack of basic e-commerce courses is a common complaint for online retailers, says Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org, the online retail division of trade association National Retail Federation. Not having those classes can limit the recruiting pool for retailers. "Internships are great, but it is important to have the foundation," he says. "That puts the idea of an e-commerce career into the mind of more students earlier."
To address this lack of e-commerce education, Shop.org has created a $1.4 million scholarship fund for students who want to study online retailing. The group has yet to detail the scholarship amounts and is still working to set scholarship requirements, Silverman says.
Shop.org also is in talks with at least one school, which Silverman declines to name, that wants help developing an e-commerce instruction program. The trade group might help fund courses, and Silverman says Shop.org will work to build ties between the school and the online retail community, including through the use of guest speakers.
That type of industry-campus cooperation has contributed to the success of the e-commerce program at the University of Wisconsin. The university's E-Business Consortium serves as a think tank and networking center for Wisconsin firms engaged in online retailing. And it enables professors such as Veeramani to pick the brains of e-commerce executives about the topics students should be studying.
The interaction within the consortium led to the research projects for The Swiss Colony, a dues-paying member of the group that has on occasion sponsored the work of student researchers outright, Bernet says.
For now, few students come out of college having taken specific e-commerce courses, and companies in the e-retailing industry have varying views on whether this is a problem.
ChannelAdvisor likes to see that background on a resume, and e-commerce courses can help candidates. "We have hired a couple of people who have had some relevant coursework," Gates says. "Having an e-commerce background is certainly helpful and has swayed some hiring decisions for positions that require intensive e-commerce knowledge."
But undergraduate e-retail courses are no requirement for getting a job at e-retailer eBags.com. "We are probably less concerned about their preparation with e-commerce versus the overall skill sets they developed in college," says Peter Cobb, co-founder and senior vice president of marketing. "We feel like we can train people on e-commerce and e-marketing."
For now, e-retailers have little choice but to educate new hires about e-commerce, as they're not likely to get that information in school. It appears the retail industry may have to step up its own involvement with universities if it wants e-commerce courses showing up in more college catalogs.