Is a college education enough to get young engineers ready for the workforce?

Four years is not nearly time enough to train an engineer, and schools are long on theory and short on practice

By R. Russell Rhinehart

1 of 3 < 1 | 2 | 3 View on one page

I'd like to address the gap between the academic and practice control community—why it exists, the issues it creates, things that can be done to bridge the gap and the need for industry mobilization to cause change. My focus is on the U.S. situation. There are two issues. One is the general lack of practice experience in the faculty, which aligns student perspectives to the science/research "way," and the other is the absence of a control engineering curriculum.

In this column, I will describe the problem. In a later column, I will discuss solutions.

There seems to be general agreement, in both industry and academe, that engineering faculty should have engineering practice experience. If professors are going to teach students how to be engineers, the instructors need to understand engineering. However, there is little practice experience among faculty. As a result, students are guided by the research, science, perfection, individual performance and intellectual values that characterize their teachers; not the contrasting values related to sufficiency, urgency, compliance, partnership, safety, personal effectiveness and fruition that are essential for business success. Furthermore, students are taught engineering science principles, which is good, but in an idealized and out-of-context manner, which is not. While I think we do an excellent job in preparing engineering students with the technical skills needed for them to become engineers, we do it within an academic context. As a result, they do not graduate with the perspectives and expectations to be successful in the disparate context of industrial practice.

I am one of those graduates. It seems it took me two years of work as a process engineer to understand the new environment, to become "industrialized," to be able to be an independent and relevant contributor. Two years is a typical induction period. In all, I worked in industry 13 years. My last role as supervisor of a group of engineers led me to understand the importance of human resource development and the need to accelerate the transition of entry-level engineers from academe to industry.

The two-year transition period is substantially the result of the misdirection of the student persona for engineering function and is often called "the gap." It undermines careers, delays productivity and costs industry. It is not the result of which topics are or are not taught. I see it as a national productivity issue, and industry, academe and government are all involved as stakeholders.

See Also: Automation Companies Prepare Younger Generation to Replace Retiring Employees

We need to bridge the gap. Unfortunately, the "ways," the modus operandi, of those three stakeholders are very different. If we are going to bridge the gap, we need to understand what it is and the environment that creates it. An obvious solution from a business perspective will not work in academe.

I believe that engineering education is substantially fulfilling its multiple missions, that my university is as good a place to work as any, and am particularly very proud of the accomplishment and quality of the students in my program. Having gone back to school for my doctorate after working in industry, I see that what is taught is useful and relevant, even if the instructor is not fully aware of the application context, and I find that instructors without industrial experience can be excellent teachers.

Although happy about my situation and educational outcomes, much needs to be done to improve education. I would like the following criticism to be accepted as an initiative to add value, so that engineering education can achieve what is possible.

Why Is There a Gap?

Some think it is about the topics in the curriculum. We don't teach what a particular entry-level engineer needs to know, such as programming in a particular DCS or PLC.  That is not the issue. The curriculum topics are directed by Industrial Advisory Committees, the accreditation agency (ABET), the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam, and collective exchange of best practices and curriculum content sponsored by several professional societies. They are the right topics, but we cannot teach in only four years what one 40-year career needs, let alone the needs of every separate career.

Figure 1 uses a Venn diagram to illustrate the concept of career-relevant knowledge.  Ninety-five percent of what we teach in school is useful for any particular career and life, but it comprises only 5% of what the individual needs to be functional, happy and successful.

Education is to provide graduates with adequacy in the fundamental skills of a discipline and certify their fitness to self-learn. Sometimes students and employers think that college education is about teaching the necessary skills. That is partly right, but the subset that can be taught in four years represents the tip of the iceberg. We can only teach the essential minimal set. Employees must learn the other 95%.  Sometimes educators think it is about teaching the fundamental skills. That also is partly right, but what is often missing in the faculty understanding of its role is that we need to prepare students to self-learn the other 95%.

1 of 3 < 1 | 2 | 3 View on one page
Show Comments
Hide Comments

Join the discussion

We welcome your thoughtful comments.
All comments will display your user name.

Want to participate in the discussion?

Register for free

Log in for complete access.


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments