A recent graduate's view of the academic-practice gap

Feb. 26, 2020
Putman media intern Alexandra Ditoro interviews a recent mechanical engineering graduate about his experience starting his career.

Alexandra Ditoro, a current journalism student at Loyola University in Chicago, builds on our last podcast about the academic-practice gap with her interview with Jack Ferguson, a recent graduate of Clemson University and a seal reliability engineer at SEPCO. Alexandra and Jack discuss Jack’s transition from a student to a practitioner, what he felt confident about and what he maybe didn’t feel so confident about as he started his career.


Amanda Del Buono: Hello again, and welcome back to Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce. I’m Amanda Del Buono. Today we have a great interview lined up for you, but first I wanted to drop another reminder about Smart Industry Base Camp, coming to Chicagoland March 30 through April 1. Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind event that will bring together thought leaders, end users, digital transformation experts and anyone else involved in digital transformation to explore the tools, trends and techniques that will raise any plant’s performance in the age of IIoT. To view the event agenda, speaker lineup, learn more and register for the event, please visit event.smartindustry.com.

We’re also getting close to the deadline to submit nominations for the 2020 class of Influential Women in Manufacturing. If you know women making waves in industry, nominate them to be recognized now at influentialwomeninmanufacturing.com. Nominations will close March 31, so don’t procrastinate, nominate now.

Today, I’d like to introduce our listeners to Alexandra Ditoro, a communications intern here at Putman Media who has been an asset to the Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce podcast and Influential Women in Manufacturing program behind the scenes.

Alexandra, a current journalism student at Loyola University in Chicago, and today’s podcast builds on our last podcast about the academic-practice gap. Alexandra speaks with Jack Ferguson, a recent graduate of Clemson University and a seal reliability engineer at SEPCO. Alexandra and Jack discuss Jack’s transition from a student to a practitioner, what he felt confident about and what he maybe didn’t feel so confident about as he started his career.

Here's their discussion.

Alexandra Ditoro: Okay. So, I'm here with Jack Ferguson. Thanks so much for talking with me.

Jack Ferguson: Thanks for having me.

Alexandra: So, tell me a little bit about yourself.

Jack: I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. I recently graduated from Clemson University with a mechanical engineering degree, and now I'm working at SEPCO as a seal reliability engineer, mostly dealing with the failure analysis that we get in here.

Alexandra: Really cool. Great. So, I'm understanding that this is your first job out of school, correct?

Jack: Yes.

Alexandra: So, what are you hoping to gain from your job? Is there a part of the field that you didn't learn in school that you've gained an interest in after graduating?

Jack: Yeah. So, mostly, what I'm looking for is just experience, you know, and just getting that work experience, getting out in the real world, and figuring out how things work outside of a classroom where everything's nice, and neat, and easy. And, really, one of the interesting things about this field is that we didn't learn any of it in school. You know, I never thought about the fact that pumps have seals in them. To us, a pump was a circle in a diagram that had, like, a flow rate going in and a flow rate going out. And so, coming into this industry where all, like, the specific stuff is new to me has been pretty interesting to kinda learn that side of things.

Alexandra: So, if this side of engineering and of manufacturing was something you were unfamiliar with, what made you interested in it? What made you pursue this job? Is there anything about it that made you want to go into this specific area?

Jack: Well, as I was kinda coming out of school, I knew I wanted to go into some sort of manufacturing area, something a little more hands-on. I found I didn't really like design work all that much. And, to be honest, this job was the first job that I was able to get a job offer for after college. And I was told by everybody that it was a great place to work, and that everyone was really nice, and it was interesting. So, that's why I chose to work here.

Alexandra: Great. And since graduating and since coming into this new position, what's the top lesson you've learned since entering the field?

Jack: That things in the field are a lot different than things in the classroom, you know? Where everything in the classroom, like I said before, is nice, and neat, and easy, and organized, in the field, it's just not, and there's so much variation that can go on and so many different things that can happen that if you're just going off of classroom experience, you're not gonna be prepared for it.

Alexandra: Could you go into detail about some of those things that you're mentioning?

Jack: Well, a lot of it is like in the classroom, we assumed that a pump worked perfectly and things like that, but I went to a plant recently where their product was just leaking all over the place because their seals were bad. And that introduces a lot of variability in their process, a lot of inefficiency in their process, and things like that, and that's just not something that we covered at all.

Alexandra: So, sort of on that note, I guess, what hard or soft skills do you feel like you could have benefited from more education on or need to improve?

Jack: One of them would be drafting training because I have 3D modeling training but none of the conventions and learning the software like AutoCAD or something like that for doing 2D drafting that people can then take and use to machine parts and things like that. I don't have any training in that, so I'm having to learn that all on my own.

Alexandra: Wow. That's awesome. So, a lot of times in the field, there are a lot of engineers that struggle with soft skills, so communication skills or even just sort of simple things like that. Did you see anything like that in your education that you maybe would have benefited from?

Jack: Yeah. Clemson did a fairly good job of helping us with our soft skills. You know, we had a technical writing class that was mandatory, we had numerous group projects where we had to deal with different people, all sorts of different people and overcoming challenges with them. So, they did a pretty good job of helping us with those soft skills.

Alexandra: Awesome. And continuing off of that, did you do an internship and do you believe that would have helped in terms of any gaps between your education and working in the field?

Jack: I did not do an internship, unfortunately, but I definitely think it would have helped, especially if you did co-op. You know, you do alternating work and school semesters, and in the end, you come out with a year of real-world experience, and that would be hugely beneficial. Just from talking with the people in my classes who were in co-ops, they were learning so much and so much of this stuff that I'm learning now that's, you know, what you learn outside the classroom. So, that would have been hugely beneficial.

Alexandra: Yeah. Definitely, hands-on is always helpful.

Jack: Yes.

Alexandra: And do you think, aside from internships and co-ops, just in your experience, was there anything that would've helped to bridge the gap for you from college education to working now?

Jack: I'm not really sure. I mean, other than just getting out there and doing it, there's really not much substitute other than doing that and maybe, you know, teaching things in a way that's less idealized and more real-world would have been helpful. But there's so much that goes on with all of that, that it's kinda hard to cover it all in a reasonable amount of time.

Alexandra: And what built your interest in STEM, and then specifically what built your interest in engineering?

Jack: Yeah. So, I've really always been interested in physics, mostly, and just kinda how things work in the world, in the universe, and things like that. And so, when I was going to choose a college major, it was really between engineering and physics, and I really enjoyed the hands-on aspect of engineering a whole lot more. So, that's why I went into mechanical engineering.

Alexandra: Do you think your job ended up being more or less hands-on than you expected it to be?

Jack: I think it turned out to be a little more hands-on than I expected it to be. I haven't really done a whole lot of, like, you know, design work, or computer stuff, or anything like that, but I've done a fair amount of failure analysis, which is just getting a seal, taking it apart, and looking at it piece by piece to figure out what went wrong with it, or going out to a plant and walking around in that, looking at different pumps and seals that they have, and just talking with the customer about the equipment they have. So, it's been a lot of hands-on and not much else, really.

Alexandra: A lot of being out there versus being in an office, it sounds like.

Jack: Exactly.

Alexandra: And then, through a lot of this you've talked about how there were aspects of the field and aspects of your job that you felt introduced to some stuff that you didn't know. How do you think we can not just help others gain interest in fields like this but help others to know? Do you have any ideas on how to bring into schools, "Hey, there are these seals and there are these other aspects to pumps and to manufacturing that you might not realize?"

Jack: Yeah. Well, one thing that Clemson did that could help with this is something called technical electives, which were things that we had to take in our senior year. And they just kinda gave us a list of electives that we could take that had varying topics and things like that. But the topic scopes were pretty limited, just based on, like, what the professors that the department had were willing and able to teach. And so, maybe pulling in more professors who could, you know, just teach those kinda technical electives, or have kinda guest professors that can do that same sort of thing would be really helpful.

Alexandra: For sure, yeah. And just to end things off, I'm curious to know if there's anything about your job that had been surprising or way more fun than you expected? Anything about your job that you just really love or found interesting that you weren't expecting to?

Jack: I think, really, the failure analysis side, which fortunately is a lot of my job, has been really interesting, more interesting than I expected it to be because it's like solving a puzzle, putting all the pieces together, saying, "Oh, I've got thermal markings on this piece and a little bit of rub marks on this piece. So, here's what happened." And kinda getting to play detective a little bit, I guess, has been really fun.

Alexandra: Great. Well, thanks so much for joining me and talking with me.

Jack: Of course. Thank you for having me.

Amanda: And that was Alexandra’s interview with Jack Ferguson, mechanical engineer at SEPCO, about his experience as a recent college graduate entering the field.

Thanks again for tuning into Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce. Keep an eye out for our next episode releasing March 25, where I’ll be talking succession planning and retirement management with Life Cycle Engineering’s Randy Heisler.

Until then, be sure to like and subscribe to Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or your favorite podcasting app, and don’t forget to join the conversation on our Facebook and LinkedIn groups, at Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce.

Thanks again, and have a great day.

For more, tune in to Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce.

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