How to bridge the gap between engineering school and the real working world

Workplaces will have work with academia and do some of the heavy lifting to better prepare young engineers for work

By R. Russell Rhinehart

This is Part 2 of a two-part article related to the gap between the preparation of graduates for engineering practice, specifically in control engineering, and the real-world working conditions they will face. Part 1 described the problem and its origins. Now I will tackle some possible solutions. My solution will not be grounded in the idea of industry and alumni providing university financing. Don't send money. If you do, we will use it to attain our aspirations, which you may likely find to be a misguided use.

Education is important. The role of professors is to develop human resources, professional knowledge and infrastructure through which engineering can contribute to human welfare. Item 1: Developing human resources is more than just teaching the engineering sciences; it implies full-person preparation for career and life. To properly direct human development, teachers need to understand the practice context. Item 2: Developing professional knowledge is the creation of a body of knowledge, tools and procedures that are useful. Developing something useful requires application understanding, validation within context and creative exploration to unveil new and practicable. Item 3: Developing the infrastructure means creating instructional materials, agencies, societies, etc. And sustainable systems must be grounded in the reality of all constituencies.

Utility within context is essential. Scientific perfection and intellectual knowledge are important, but those are academic values. Those are enabling tools, not the goal. The problem is that a professor's focus is on the enabling tools, not the context of their application.

Also read: "Is a college education enough to get young engineers ready for the workforce?"

The Situation

To review briefly, there is a gap in skills learned in school and those needed for practice. But a four-year program cannot prepare every graduate with every skill that every diverse career will need. Education can prepare them to be able to learn those skills. I think we do that well and do not believe that the gap is related to skills. I believe the gap is related to the differing perspectives of industry and academe.

There are dozens of solutions for bridging the gap, but to be sustainable they need to be grounded in the reality of both academe and industry.

Although graduates enter industry with fundamental skills, their perspectives are academic. They are aligned with learning, not doing; with perfection, not sufficiency; with knowledge, not fruition. Their perspectives about their role are not aligned with the way of business. Accordingly, industry must invest in coaching, training and activities to redirect new hires. The gap costs employers time and money, and delays new hires from rapidly attaining functionality.

A second aspect of the gap deals with full utilization of faculty creativity and insight. Faculty members are skilled in understanding details and seeing possibilities. They are creative, energetic, intellectually select and grounded in critical thinking and logical mechanistic analysis. One would think that they are capable of helping industry solve problems, but they have little inclination or skill to solve a problem within a confounding context. They are good at analyzing one idealized portion of the issue. The gap means that the potential for faculty to contribute to the practice is not fully used for the greater good.

The gap is especially significant in the field of automation and control. Not only does it include the academic to industrial perspective contrast, but it also has a skill component. Undergraduates in the U.S., primarily in chemical, electrical and mechanical programs, have one course in control. Usually it is taught by a professor with no control practice experience and from a textbook chosen by the instructor for its content-compatibility with the professor's inclinations. Mostly, the control course is comprised of lessons in mathematical analysis of dynamic systems and the glorious magic of solving ordinary differential equations with Laplace techniques. Since there is no automation or control undergraduate program in the U.S., just one course in the underlying mathematical analysis, industry must invest significant post-graduation training to prepare new hires for instrument and control systems.

This is not a new problem. And, it is worldwide.

What can be done to bridge the gap?

The gap is systemic. It is caused by disparate aspects of the mission and modus operandi of academe and industry. Having worked in academe for 29 years, with 13 as a school head, it seems to me that academe cannot act alone to bridge the gap. Education needs to teach the essentials of engineering to the masses and test for individual performance within institutions that are marginally funded. We like teaching, but it is a secondary aspect of the reality. And we teach what we know, which is normally the isolated science and math of our research.

Some have said, “We should mend the gap”, but to make the gap disappear, universities would need to change into for-profit development (not research) labs. I don't think there is a big enough incentive to generate an economic force to make such a change. If it did, we would lose the attraction and benefits of the undirected creative investigation of the current university system. It took a long time for education to find a sustainable way. I suspect if there were better paradigms, they would have evolved. I believe that we are doing it right related to creation, validation and dissemination of knowledge. I believe that we are doing it right in best practices for teaching novices with the right fundamental skills.

Some say, “Add a year to the curriculum to get students to acquire the relevant courses. Make engineering a five-year professional degree.” But, if we add a year to the curriculum, the courses will still be taught by research-oriented faculty, who lack the context understanding of the ‘way' on the other side of the gap. And it will cost society more: It means we need 25% more faculty to teach the additional courses. And extending the curriculum adds financial burden to parents and states, and delays income earning for the individual (and, perhaps most importantly, income tax revenue).

I believe that our hope is in bridging the gap, not mending it, not eliminating it, not curing it. Preserve an academic environment that can be productive in education, research and dissemination, but simultaneously direct the faculty experience toward application needs to make better application use of the research creativity. Acknowledge the gap and understand its characteristics to prepare students for the transition.

Key things will remain unchanged. We still teach youth and graduate young adults with their persona and little business experience. Faculty interest and guided investigation will still be related to isolated aspects of non-commercial projects. Faculty reward will be based on publication within the academic community of stature.

But there is hope for improvement.

The need for industry mobilization

I think industry will have to continue its complementary training of new hires for the practical side of engineering education. Significant industrial experience is needed to qualify mentors to be professional competence coaches.

Who has the incentive to fix the gap? Academe? We seek quality in education and follow the money and metrics that define learning. We don't shape our environment; it shapes us.

Industry should consider the costs associated with new hires that need considerable coaching to become effective partners. If it is possible to accelerate the transition and gain a year in productivity from each new hire, and a company hires 10 per year (a medium small business) at a cost of $200k/year (salary, benefits, support), that is a $2-million per year increase in productivity. How would your company evaluate the potential benefit of better prepared graduates?

Government should consider the opportunity cost to a nation related to delayed new-hire productivity and the inability of faculty to directly aid business in bringing complex and comprehensive solutions to fruition.

I believe that industry and government must take the initiative to solve the problem. They have the incentive.

There are dozens of solutions for bridging the gap, but to be sustainable they need to be grounded in the reality of both academe and industry. Solutions must have a “win” for all participants. For students, this means job opportunities, and career and life success. For professors, this means access to funding and publication stature, and quality teaching. For industry, this means faster-starting entry-level employees, workforce development and problem-solving help from academe. For government, this means greater national productivity and development.

Industry can participate in:

  • Consortia for workforce development: Fund and guide projects directed to prepare students for hiring needs, not faculty-driven research. In my experience this leads to publications, degrees and academic stature for academe. Such consortia also offer networking opportunities for employment and stipend funding for students, and can give companies  access to and the chance to observe potential hires with the right skills.
  • Student organizations: Host evening seminars and field trips. This relays the industrial ”way” to both students and faculty advisors.
  • Summer internships for graduate students and faculty as well as undergraduates. Tie in to the higher level skills and provide experiences for faculty to understand context.
  • Training seminars/workshops for faculty about industry needs: Host events to help faculty understand your need for human resources, technology and context.
  • Capstone courses: Provide challenge problems and feedback on design projects and laboratory experiments.
  • Voice your concerns: Relay the issues with the gap at the legislative level and on departmental and college industrial advisory committees. Relay the message that control courses and automation in experiments are important.
  • Graduate seminars: Present seminars for graduate students and faculty to understand your technical challenges and way of solving them.
  • Understand the gap: Know what it is that misdirects the perspective of new hires. Then you can initiate appropriate training conversations to redirect the ‘way' of the new hires.
  • Support efforts of ISA and the Automation Federation: Enhance control in the curriculum and make its importance known.
  • Initiate taskforces within industrial associations: Explore the issues, calculate the opportunity cost and collectively initiate solutions.
  • Understand what professors can and cannot deliver when engaged in problem solving: It is not what you can expect from a contractor. Make contract research or consulting expectations grounded in the reality of possible outcomes.

"Support education? What's in it for us?" an employer might ask. Access to top new hires is one benefit: Students are serious about preparation for their career success, and they appreciate companies that provide insight, resources and opportunities to help them and provide affirmation of their personal mission. Through participation in education, industry develops visibility and student allegiance, which aids recruiting of those best suited for your company. Better prepared graduates is another benefit: Faculty members are dedicated to teaching and to preparing students for their future success. Through industrial classroom, laboratory and project guidance, instructors begin to understand the issues that are important on the other side of the gap and can shift student perspectives.

Be a good customer. Don't let independent evolution on separate sides of the gap lead to our inability to synergize.