ASEE Prism Magazine - May/June 2003
The Graduate
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Magnetic Fields
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The Graduate

- By Kerry Hannon   

EDUCATORS ARE STRUGGLING TO PREPARE WELL-ROUNDED ENGINEERS FOR TODAY'S WORKPLACE

"What do you think is the most important attribute of a leader?"

"How have you applied that in your school and work environment?"

"Have you ever had to introduce an idea or concept to people who did not agree with you?"

"With all these projects and extracurricular activities, how do you manage your time?"

"TELL ME ABOUT IT."

These are not engineering questions. These are life questions. And these are the types of queries likely to come from corporate recruiters on college campuses in the hunt for the cream of engineering graduates.

Think of it as our own survival show, says Ken Lawrence, senior vice president of utility powerhouse Exelon Corp. and president of PECO Energy Co. in Philadelphia.

" If we were having our own survival show, there are certain skills you really need to survive here," he says. Start with speed, followed by a firm understanding of business and finance. Finish with the ability to explain what you are doing throughout the project to people who aren't engineers and get them involved in the process, counsels Lawrence.

It's the curse of the tribe. Engineers are just doomed to a stereotype that they haven't been able to shake free of for years. In the past, engineering educators haven't done much to help these fledgling graduates promote their cause outside of university inner sanctums. They have understandably relied on coursework heavy on technical analysis.

And that is still crucial. "We count on schools to graduate technically qualified people," says Jerry Bischof, director of nuclear engineering for Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Resources. "These graduates come out with phenomenal computer skills. They grew up with computers, and it shows."

In 1995, the Engineering Criteria 2000 of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) put forth a rough draft of its mandate to educators to design curriculums that can produce engineers with the right skill sets to enter the job market. Now seven years later, what's the scorecard? How successful has it been? Have educators taken the recommendations to heart? How is it being implemented? Is there an underlying tension lurking between the two worlds of supply and demand?

It was no mistake that ABET's 2000 criteria flag this all-important skill blanketly called "communication." "Not only does the job have to get done in record time, you have to get your point across, and it's not going to be based on trust," says Exelon's Lawrence.

" It's not just, ‘Trust me this is the way we have to do this,'" according to Lawrence. You have to work in the early stages getting feedback from various teams impacted by the changes and then work on the back end explaining your actions and how you got there, he says.

There are survivors in Exelon's world, Lawrence is happy to report. Engineers do exist who can actually be conversant and engage with others. They play nicely. They're creative and, truth be known, have even been known to be funny. These are skills that they are learning in their classrooms and on project teams.

The curriculums at many colleges, universities, and corporations have been tweaked and even overhauled in some cases in response to ABET's criteria. The quandary appears to be how fast the new approaches are being woven into the coursework. In general, there's a frustration on both sides that change isn't happening fast enough and constraints of budgets continue to hamper efforts.

It's not so much that academics are loath to make adjustments in the way engineers are educated. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in either court to say that producing well-rounded students is not an admirable goal. It's that nagging dilemma of what is going to work within the confines of individual engineering schools.

 

Talking Heads

The most difficult piece to address, interestingly enough, has been basic human communication tools. The Achilles' heel here is that schools are just not quite sure what the best methods to teach communications skills are likely to be and how to execute them without undo expense. In all fairness, the type of person that is attracted to engineering is not necessarily the one who is the life of the party and naturally proficient at this set of skills.

" When we do a psychological test using the Myers-Brigg personality evaluation tool, it's clear that engineers as a whole tend to be introverts rather than extroverts," says Dominion's Bischof. There's a lack of comfort with engineers in general in large groups or in public-speaking situations." In Dominion's nuclear program, for instance, it's important that engineers are at ease in the field and introducing themselves into different groups of people. That's the only way they are going to be able to glean information that will help them do their jobs.

Dominion, like other companies surveyed, has had to learn to cope with smaller numbers of engineers on their payrolls. With keener competition in the industry, cost-cutting has inevitably resulted in fewer engineers to tackle the tasks at hand. "We rely on quality people to help us compete at this level, and they have to be able to commu-nicate easily," says Bischof.

The business world just can't get by anymore on that old-school engineer working independently behind closed doors. Today, job ads in newspapers across the country for engineers plainly, boldly, and explicitly state that candidates must have excellent organizational and effective communications skills.

An understanding and experience dealing with engineering practices and principles will only get you so far. Engineers must be well-versed in technical writing and the know-how to deftly make an oral presentation to a group of clients or co-workers. People skills, glad-handing, creative consensus building, business acumen, and, yes, real-world survival skills are de rigueur for those engineers regardless of the discipline. Joke telling isn't a prerequisite, but you have to be able to interface with engineers and all levels of the organization, period.

The hue and cry is there, all right, that changes need to be made at a greater speed, and it's not going away any time soon. Loria Yeadon, a patent attorney for a major corporation who holds a master's in electrical engineering, pounds the table with the rest of the business world. "Engineers need to broaden their skill sets," she says. "Technical competence can only get you so far with solutions."

Today's engineers have to be business-minded and understand legal issues as well as the nuts and bolts of engineering tasks, she says. Even more critical in her eyes is being able to work alongside and report to people from other cultures. "It's a multifaceted engineering candidate that will fare well in today's corporate environment," says Yeadon. A successful engineer must have knowledge of marketing, law, and communication to augment the analytical discipline.

Put it this way: "You can't have blinders on and sit in a lab," she expounds. "It's not a one-dimensional job." For example, engineers need to understand the importance of protecting the technology that they are creating. If they don't, they are missing a critical requirement of their job.

But Yeadon, like other corporate executives interviewed, realizes that universities are not going to be able to allocate the resources to create full-blown courses in the humanities for their engineers-to-be. Rather, they should consider ways to augment their learning of the basics with tutorials from other disciplines or visiting professors from the corporate world. Some institutions have these offerings already in place. Others are still exploring the concept but are open to the notion.

 

Slow to Change

For academics, it's not a lack of effort or desire to introduce these softer skills into the rigorous mix. "I think universities are honestly trying to change and work closely with corporations to do so, but I'm not sure that the process has been set up to allow them to change as fast as business is," says Exelon's Lawrence. "They need to step back and leap frog in order to get into the swing. It's a real challenge for them," he says.

The dilemma is palpable. It's frustrating, says Michael J. Demetsky, professor and chair of the University of Virginia's department of civil engineering. "Absolutely, we need to improve the communication skills of our graduates. But as a state university, we're very research focused. That requires more practical applications, more design work, more theoretical and less practical knowledge in some cases," he says. In the meantime, the university's finances ultimately play a major role in just how many courses in the humanities can feasibly be offered to engineering undergraduates from a staffing perspective, says Demetsky.

The important thing is that both sides are talking to each other. Dominion, for example, has an aggressive program in place to work its relationships with a number of universities diligently. Dominion's management-level executives do the recruiting on college campuses and screen the potential hires. That's one way we can really judge communi-cation skills, says Dominion's Bischof.

Bischof recently visited Virginia Tech to interview candidates for 10 slots. In total, there were 100 résumés that met the cut-off for an on-campus interview. After an interview, half of the candidates were flat-out rejected because of their lack of communi-cations skills. That information was fed back to the university. "Advisers and department heads are receptive to our input," he says.

For American Management Systems, a global information technology consulting outfit based in Fairfax, Va., hard-core engineering analytical skills and problem-solving capabilities are the manna. That said, communication finesse is impossible to ignore. "In the past, the engineers and tech types were locked away in rooms and kept apart from clients," says Mark Clark, AMS college recruiting and university-relations manager. "Now we need the technical people to have communication skills to verbalize and write so everyone can understand the scope of the project."

So true. Listen to IBM's Christine Dunbar, a manager in the Microelectronics Division. "Ten years ago on campus, I think the pervasive feeling was that diversity of education (through taking courses in business) was a good way to bolster an engineering résumé if the technical grades were not outstanding. But now I observe that even many of the 4.0s have the opinion that a general business education may be equally as important as technical acumen.

Consequently, I do find that many engineers have chosen to take any number of business-focused classes—from economics to marketing, entrepreneurship, and even "softer" classes like public speaking."

From a recruiting standpoint, it is not necessarily the knowledge gained from the business-class textbooks that is important but the skills that are developed from the structure of curriculum. While success in the engineering curriculum depends on ability to complete problem sets and exams, success in business classes depends on ability to analyze case studies, succeed in group projects, develop and conduct effective presentations. These are the skills that separate the good from the outstanding engineers in the workplace. "I definitely hold in high regard those students who have demonstrated success in this environment," says Dunbar.

AMS's Clark agrees: "Our engineers will be face to face with clients and need to be able to represent the company in a positive way," he says. Clark looks for students chomping at the bit to explain problems they have had to solve outside of the engineering classroom.

In the end, as ABET determined years ago, it will be the ability to move with dexterity as a team member and a leader that will make the world of difference in the job market for a budding engineering graduate. After all, it's about survival.

 

Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at khannon@asee.org.


 

WHAT EMPLOYERS WANT

Basically the corporations want the whole ball of wax—soft skills, science skills, and diversity. Universities, often cramped by budgetary concerns and elemental old-school thinking, are trying to make the three jibe.

It hasn't been easy. However, both seem to understand the need to mesh the three challenges together for an engineer's success in the workplace. No one seems to be arguing with that notion.

But top-notch technical skills are still important. Michael J. Demetsky, professor and chair of the University of Virginia's department of civil engineering, is adamant about the role communication and soft skills play in the success of a graduate student in the corporate world.

In general, here's what today's engineering students should be able to parlay into an engineering career:
*An ability to apply their knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering to design, conduct experiments, and analyze data.
*An ability to perform on multidisciplinary teams and communicate effectively.
*A broad education to help them understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context. That means a smattering of everything from history to sociology to psychology.
*A yen for lifelong learning.
*A bona fide knowledge of contemporary issues.

Most university graduate programs are still struggling to evolve. In the case of UVA, Demetsky freely admits that the skill set is becoming more basic than ever before. That is, given core curriculum requirements, requirements in humanities and the social sciences, science electives, and unrestricted electives, along with a reduction in credit hours, design and practical applications are receiving less time in the classroom. Good students ought to grab hold of them in their undergraduate years, he contends.

Therein lies the conflict. According to Bob McKinley, director of engineering for Fossil & Hydro Technical Services at Dominion Energy, Inc., many university engineering graduate departments do still weigh heavy on those technical skills. "Engineers that can clearly communicate with the customer are more likely to develop a cost-effective solution. They have the opportunity to advance quickly," he says.

So the debate continues, with corporations drumming home the need for better communication skills versus engineering faculty at universities who are pressured to do research and publish in order to obtain tenure and promotion. "In the past 20 years, engineering faculty has been pressured much more than their peers, who began academic careers earlier and devoted much more of their time to engineering practice than research," says Demetsky.

Another key to producing a winner of an engineering graduate is on a different tangent altogether, but one that has been in the forefront of discussion lately. There is a genuine need and demand for diversity in candidates by corporations. Corporations want to see some type of diversity commitment from the universities, says patent attorney and electrical engineer Loria Yeadon. "They are looking for a diverse pool, and they are waiting."

In her opinion, universities need to enroll more diverse students and make a commitment to them. Corporate America will applaud that, she says. These future engineers need a shot and haven't been getting it. Other corporate recruiters say they are doing the best at hiring candidates of race and color that they can. It is a critical matter to them.

So there are soft skills, hard skills, and diversity demands all roiling about in hopes of coming together to create a smooth path for an aspiring engineer freshly degreed and a corporation—to form a partnership that will blossom into productive careers and create top-level engineering solutions.

— KH   

 

 

 
 
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