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Work-and-Learn Programs Prep Tomorrow’s Engineers

University and industry groups team up on work-and-learn programs designed to better prepare engineering students for real-world challenges.

Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT) teamed up with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities (APLU) to figure out where they fall short and what can be done to better prepare students for the rapidly changing workplace.

University graduates with degrees in electrical or mechanical engineering are prime talent for driving the autonomous vehicles, smart consumer devices, and aeronautical innovations of the future. Yet while the new class of talent is highly skilled in theoretical knowledge, many lack problem solving capabilities and the context for tackling real-world applications—both critical employability skills for thriving in today’s workplace.

A trio of industry and university players set out to take on the challenge, devising a roadmap to help universities better prepare engineering students for the demands of the modern workplace. Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT), a public/private partnership committed to the development, deployment, and training of advanced lightweight metals manufacturing technologies, teamed up with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), a cross-industry consortium dedicated to improving the competitiveness of American manufacturing, and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities (APLU), an advocacy organization advancing the work of public universities.

Work-and-Learn Workshop Exposes Flaws

Workshop participants said the average employer spends one to two years upskilling a recent graduate before they can adequately function as an entry-level engineer.

To start their effort, the trio, in partnership with Manufacturing USA, convened a group of 50 representatives from university engineering programs and industry to meet in a two-day workshop. The event invited all participants to drill down into current work-and-learn programs offered as part of the engineering curriculum to figure out where they fall short and what can be done to better prepare students for the rapidly changing workplace.  While 96% of chief academic officers at universities say their institutions are very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the workforce, only 11% of business leaders say the same.

“The workshop highlighted the need for industry and educators to work together to increase opportunities for engineering students to gain real-world work experience while completing their degrees,” explains Rebecca Taylor, senior vice president for Strategic Partnerships at NCMS.

Mirroring some of the dysfunction in a typical company, engineering students have interaction with students in other engineering disciplines, but they have little engagement with the students representing the business side or with the technicians who will build their designs. The silo mentality doesn’t work when the industry is shifting to agile development processes and requires engineering to take more of systems-level perspective. Workshop participants also said the average employer spends one to two years upskilling a recent graduate before they can adequately function as an entry-level engineer. More than half (60%) of managers said critical thinking and problem-solving skills were most lacking.

“Generally, businesses say they need more emphasis on soft skills – the ability for recent graduates to work effectively in diverse teams, communicate, and show professionalism and workplace etiquette,” says Shalin Jyotishi, APLU’s associate for Economic Development and Community Engagement. “Engineers will rarely be asked to complete calculus questions in the workplace, but they will be asked to collaborate with technical or production workers, present proposals before business partners or team members, and communicate orally and in writing in a clear, succinct, and professional manner. Many believe, and we agree, that one of the best ways to acquire these workplace skills is to work—hence work-and-learn.”

Engineering Work-and-Learn Imperatives

As part of a detailed report based on their findings, the group came up with four imperatives designed to provide guidance for reimaging engineering work-and-learn models. They include:

Imperative No. 1: Engineering graduates should have a deeper understanding of how their role intersects with other processes and individuals in the workplace.

Recommended action items: Create inter-disciplinary and multi-level innovation groups to develop new curricula and learning modules. Also recommended is partnerships between the local community and technical colleges to facilitate industry-specific, problem-based learning experiences for both technicians and engineering students.

Imperative No. 2: All engineering students should participate in high-quality and innovative work-and-learn experiences during their undergrad and graduate programs.

Recommended action items: Develop both research and applied pathways for these experiences and provide more flexibility with completion times to support extended programs of study.

Imperative No. 3: Engineering curriculum has to be responsive to evolving industry needs.

Recommended action items: Assess the extent to which accreditation and curriculum review present barriers to change and identify strategies to improve upon them with innovative programs. Create shared academia/industry facilities to promote problem-based learning and work-and-learn experiences; establish more partnerships with small- and mid-size enterprises; and partner with Manufacturing USA Institutes to send students off for additional training.

Imperative No. 4: Work-and-learn models should be more widely implemented.

Recommended action items: Encourage adoption by including employment readiness as a metric for the institutional-level definition of success; create “engineering work-and-learn” communities of practice; and provide incentives for faculty to embrace these new models.

NCMS hopes the workshop and the resulting report highlight the need for industry and educators to work together. “Universities and industry must pursue work-and-learn as equal, reciprocal partners,” says APLU’s Jyotishi. “Industry must be transparent in defining its needs—if they’re unable to hire enough local talent, clearly articulate what skills are lacking in local talent, and work with universities to address the gap. It’s important for industry and universities to co-invest in these programs, both financially and in-kind.”

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