When I brought my MS to my first engineering job, I thought the biggest adjustment was having to be on the job from 8 am to 5 pm. Management prized the perspective I brought from academic research and applied to production quality improvements, and benefited from the clarity of thought made possible by not knowing very much about how things are done in industry.
In retrospect, there were many occasions when the path to success might have been made more direct by factoring in the exigencies of the industrial environment: There's not enough money; people don't always follow written instructions; raw materials are not research-quality; equipment doesn't always do what it's supposed to do. But instead, I just expected my management to ante up for good materials and technology, my supervisors to honestly give everything their best attention and myself to stay on top of it all. Those 8-to-5s often became longer days, Saturdays and Sundays, but we were making the finest products in the world, and it was worth it.
So I understand the concerns about the gap between industry's needs and academe's product when it comes to new engineers, discussed by Professor Russell Rhinehart in the June magazine edition (see page 14). Russ offers a comprehensive list of things that should be done about it.
One of my sons is studying engineering, and his university experience is training him well to minimize the gap. His second year included a group project to design and build a 3D printer. Along with the engineering, construction, programming and troubleshooting, the group was required to formally schedule and manage the project with progress reports, to source and procure materials on a budget, to demonstrate the finished machine and to evaluate each other's performance (which largely determined their grade). The professor gave them only a table and an electrical outlet.
His main extracurricular activity is as part of a 30-person team designing, building and competing with a human-powered submarine (www.subrace.eu). The team members represent multiple disciplines and perform everything from design and build to marketing and event management. The university's role is limited to sanctioning the organization, giving it a place to meet and requiring large amounts of paperwork.
My son and his fellow engineering students place great stock in summer internships as opportunities to gain experience, weight their resumes and earn money. They are as worried and diligent about getting a good summer job as they are about any exam or project, avidly seeking opportunities and placing applications starting in January in hopes of landing a temporary job that might lead to a permanent position.
Undergraduate internships were part of the careers of several members of the Control Process Hall of Fame. They're offered many U.S. and international organizations and industrial companies. You can get one on an oil rig, at a tech startup, in a factory, with NASA – any number of interesting places to find out if you fit in, what the company is really like and whether you have matching visions.
In response to shrinking unemployment and the competition for technical talent, some companies are extending internships to college-bound high-school graduates.
It's a high-stakes gamble on both sides, with students hoping they're not wasting an irreplaceable summer slot on a company they end up not wanting to work for, and companies spending plenty to have a chance to really get to know a potential permanent employee. Apparently, it's worth it, so if you need talent and your company doesn't hire engineering interns, you might ask why.
This summer, my son found an internship he's very excited about, 1,800 miles from home in a place he's never been. He'll go there, find a place to live and show up at the appointed time, ready to find out what it's like to do a real job in the real world.
I expect his academic experience is such that he won't find it too hard to cross the gap.