Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce: Ensuring young engineers have the digital skills they need to succeed

In this episode of the Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce podcast, Plant Services managing editor Christine LaFave Grace interviews Aisha Lawrey, director of engineering education at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). LaFave Grace and Lawrey discuss how industrial companies can partner with schools and training programs to ensure that young engineers are fully prepared for their careers.

Transcript

Amanda Del Buono: Welcome back to another episode of Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce. I’m Amanda Del Buono thanks for joining us today. Before we get started with today’s interview, I wanted to take a moment to remind you that Putman Media’s Influential Women in Manufacturing recognition program is currently accepting nominations. Our IWIM program honors women who are effecting change in the manufacturing and industrial space. So, if you know a woman like that, or you are one yourself, go to www.influentialwomeninmanufacturing.com and nominate now. Don’t wait, nominations are due March 31.

Now that we’ve done that bit of housekeeping, let’s move on to today’s interview. In this episode, Christine LaFave Grace, executive editor of Plant Services, is joining us again to speak with Aisha Lawrey, director of engineering education at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. They’ll be discussing how companies can partner with schools and training programs to ensure that the new entrants into today’s manufacturing workforce are ready to go and efficiently do their jobs.

Here's their interview.

Christine LaFave Grace: Amid all of the discussion about manufacturing's digital transformation—why it's needed, how to sell executives on the need for it, how to sell longtime plant workers on the need for it—one piece often gets left out: What are the skills that are really needed to make it happen? It's assumed that the newest members of the workforce have the digital savvy needed to readily adopt whatever tech, whatever digital initiative, that their employer adopts, but what specific skills do employers need? And how can industrial companies partner with schools and training programs to ensure that students graduate ready to hit the ground running?

For that conversation today I'm speaking with Aisha Lawrey, director of engineering education at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in Washington, DC. Aisha has been with ASME for nearly 7 years and last year earned her EDD in educational leadership and administration from Rutgers. Currently, she's wrapping up final preparations for the ASME International Mechanical Engineering Education Leadership Summit, taking place in New Orleans March 20-23.

Aisha, thanks so much for your time today.

Aisha Lawrey: Thank you so much for having me.

CLG: Alright, so, from your work with ASME and in education, you have a pretty wide-ranging perspective on the skills needs in industry. Where are the biggest gaps between the skills needed in industry right now and the skills that engineering students are leaving schools with? To kind of further parse that, what kinds of skills--hard skills or soft skills--does industry need most that it's not always finding in recent grads?

AL: Yeah, that is a big question that is being discussed in this space. So, in terms of the skills that industry needs now that students are not necessarily leaving strongly with are the real IT skills, those digital competencies is what we’re hearing from companies. Especially within our area of mechanical engineering and advanced manufacturing, students need those skills to be a little bit stronger. And what we’re telling industry is that they need to really be a voice and kind of a leader for universities for them to follow for them to be able to provide these to engineering students.

So, many engineers simply don’t have the skills for advanced manufacturing process, such as additive manufacturing and 3D printing. So, for example, most engineers still don’t know how to properly design a part for 3D printing. While many students know how to build a CAD drawing, they don’t know how to really apply the CAD and use CAD data to really drive the manufacturing process. And so, that is one of the critical things that we’re hearing from industry in terms of what they feel students really need to know.

The other thing is learning the design process in the first half of their college years instead of only the last half. So, if they are able to get that design experience through all four years, they will be better prepared with more of those hands-on skills. So, the strong technical skills and STEM, for them to really be able to analytically think and problem solve, those are really the skills that fill some of those gaps that are missing in industry.

CLG: That’s really interesting.

AL: Yeah. In terms of hard skills versus soft skills, you know there’s still always the misconception or the myth that engineers cannot communicate and they cannot write. So, these are skills that still industry is stressing to universities to put more emphasis on for students in terms of their senior capstone design projects and doing more presentation skills. Even if they have a product or an idea and what to be entrepreneurial, how do they write up that plan? And so, some of those skills in terms of communication, presentation, those are many of those professional skills that industry is still saying, ‘We need students to be a little bit stronger on and universities should pay a little bit more attention to.’

CLG: That’s really interesting. Bringing it all kind of together, too, No. 1, for example, how to come up with an idea and as an entrepreneur, take it out to the market or present it to your hierarchy. And No. 2, when we’re thinking about a concept that comes up a lot in our industry, the idea of design for reliability, taking a strategic approach to building reliability into an asset, a piece of equipment, a machine, from the ground up, so you’re not just troubleshooting afterward, but making sure it fits for the application and the location and organization from the start. Thinking about that from a strategic perspective, it makes so much sense to start that earlier in the education process.

AL: Yes, it really does, and that’s one of the things, even as the liaison to ABET, which is the Accreditation Board for Education and Technology, working with many of the faculty to understand what are some of those things that are really needed in terms of student outcome so they can be better prepared. And so, in that process, looking at the mechanical engineering program criteria, we’re looking at those things that are really needed in terms of the design, build, spine for the students in more of the beginning half, because students are coming out, many of them, with everything that’s going on. They are involved in FIRST Robotics and many of these other competitions, and they’re so excited and they’re drawn to engineering, and then they start their freshman year, and they say, ‘What happened? What happened to all of that exciting stuff that I was doing, that I was building and designing?’ And then they don’t see that in their freshmen year. So, that’s why we have to put more design into the first half just like we put it into the last half of those four years of education.

CLG: That’s great to close that gap and get students that much more excited throughout their years in university or in college for their engineering career.  

At next month's conference in New Orleans, one focus area is on strengthening industry-academia partnerships--what have you seen are some key traits of successful partnerships? What are best practices for effective collaboration, and where there’s maybe a little bit of improvement needed?

AL: So, some of the areas that I’ve seen in terms of really being strong and successful industry-academic partnerships is just the ability for both sides to be able to communicate, for them to understand what their needs are. I think, many times for some of the professors and faculty who have never worked in industry, sometimes they don’t always know how to be able to communicate their idea or what it is that their needs are from industry. So, the ability to be able to articulate something about your very technical, detailed information to someone in industry who may not be as technical is very powerful. And those universities and professors that are able to do that with industry are very successful.

The other thing about it is just the power of persuasion. So, this means not only being able to talk and write about science, but also be able to persuade someone else that you’re talking to that you’re making sure that they’re going in the right direction in terms of what the project is. So, really for them to have a little bit of that salesmanship backed up with the facts, because we know there’s a fine line between a good sales pitch and a used car salesman. So, I think for both sides, even in terms of industry to be able to go to a university and show them why it’s needed and necessary for them to be engaged with their company and what their company can do for them. So, I think the power of persuasion is something that I have seen be successful on both ends.

And then, the last one that I would say would just be those key leadership skills. Some people are better suited for leadership than some others. So therefore, I think that academic institutions really need to identify those that they can put up to someone in industry and be able to have that power of persuasion and talk to them about possible sponsorship or being on their industrial advisory board, because often young scientists, they might be the best people to be able to translate some of the discoveries that are going on. So, it is really good to be able to provide persuasive arguments, and then they are also gaining leadership skills. So, I think for university and for industry, identifying those people who have those skills to be able to get it done.

So, we’ve seen some successful partnerships take place based upon that, and then just going into effective collaboration and where improvement is needed, is just working on the things that I just mentioned. I think many times, again because many faculty have not worked in industry, just for them to really be able to strengthen their communication skills and how they’re able to relay the technology and the factual data that they have in terms that industry can really understand and get why it’s so beneficial for them to be able to participate. So, just understanding what the needs are on both sides. Who are the people who should be at the table, and then to be able to have a convincing argument, I think in many cases are where improvements are needed. But when you bring people to the table at the same time for them to really have an agenda to understand what is our goal? Because many times they have the same common goal, it’s just that you’re coming at it from two different sides.

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

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