The students of today are the business leaders of tomorrow. It’s important for them to understand how to solve the big, vexing problems that impact the quality of life for current and future generations.

With that in mind, the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, together with the World Environment Center, have announced a partnership to get graduate students involved in planning and implementing sustainable development initiatives while working with leading global companies.

The program, which will be called the Erb/WEC Fellowships, will be supported by IBM as part of the company’s long-term commitment to environmental sustainability and developing next-generation skills for the 21st century workforce. IBM was recently recognized for the second consecutive year as the greenest company in the U.S., according to the Newsweek 2012 Green Rankings survey, and the company is working with WEC and other companies to solve major sustainability challenges.

The Erb/WEC Fellowships will provide practical experience to dual-degree MBA/MS students who are aiming for careers that advance sustainable development. The program adds a new dimension to both WEC’s and the Erb Institute’s expanding portfolio of initiatives to improve the teaching of sustainability at leading educational institutions.

Erb/WEC Fellows come from a program that connects them to the best minds at the University of Michigan, which is at the forefront of advancing sustainability concepts and practices. Meanwhile the WEC, through its membership, will provide students direct access to senior level sustainability executives.

Why now? Sustainability has migrated to the core of business strategy for global companies. It provides an operating framework and best practices to improve energy, water and resource efficiency while attending to social and economic equity.

Sustainability reduces consumption and waste around water use and other natural resources. It’s a way to strengthen environmental, health and safety performance and drives innovation across business functions – manufacturing, product development, distribution, logistics and customer relations.  It also spurs initiatives to align global value chains.

In short, sustainability thinking has evolved to the point where it influences everything from global brand enhancement and competitive differentiation to the need for economic development in local communities and strengthened small-and-medium sized enterprises.

It’s a complex problem that can be solved only by reaching deep within organizations. Today’s students need to understand how companies evaluate and apply sustainability data to make decisions that affect the planet.

We feel that education in both business and sustainability must transcend the classroom. That includes engagement with business professionals who are on the cutting edge of the issue. This new initiative represents the spirit of that goal, with real-life learning opportunities for our students.