U.S. electrical engineering programs work to attract
more students and provide a more practical education
In the past 30 years, the United States has fallen from No. 3 to No. 17 in global rankings of countries with college students earning science and engineering degrees, reports T.J. Becker in “Wake Up Call for Innovation” in the Spring/Summer issue of “Research Horizons” from the Georgia Institute of Technology. And it doesn't look like the numbers will increase anytime soon. Only 5.5% of U.S. high school students taking the ACT college entrance exam planned to major in engineering this year, a mere 8.6% increase from a decade ago. This is despite the report of favorable earning opportunities from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in which the median annual earnings of electronic engineers, except computer, were $69,930 in 2002 and $74,283 for Ph.D. in 2003. Add to that the stricter immigration policies put in place after 9/11, and you can expect a lot more empty desks in engineering classrooms.
According to the Institute for International Education, the total number of foreign students on U.S. campuses dropped 2.4% in the 2003-2004 school year, the first decline since 1971 to 1972. Beyond immigration laws, there are other factors causing the decline in enrollment in science and engineering programs. Becker cites greater educational opportunities abroad. From 1994 to 1998, the number of Chinese, South Korean, and Taiwanese students enrolled in graduate programs in the United States dropped 19%. In that same period, the number of doctoral candidates pursuing degrees in their own countries nearly doubled.
As for American students, they have their own reasons for eschewing doctoral programs in engineering. Increasingly, students see business programs as the route to faster, bigger payoffs of their investment in tuition. Advanced science degrees come with a hefty price on time and tuition. Engineering programs have traditionally looked toward R&D funding to offset those costs. However, the government's R&D budget has been stagnant or in decline for most non-biomedical programs during the past 15 years. President George W. Bush's 2006 budget for R&D spending includes only a 0.1% increase, allocating $132.3 billion, much of which will go to NASA for space exploration.
Another sobering number from the BLS that may be keeping students away from electrical engineering programs is the job outlook for electrical engineers through 2012. According to the BLS report, while the number of job openings caused by growth and electrical engineers leaving the field for other occupations or retirement is expected to be in approximate balance with the supply of graduates, employment is expected to have only a 3% to 9% increase in the next seven years. An increase in foreign competition and the use of engineering and manufacturing services in other countries is expected to rise with the higher demand for more affordable and innovative electrical and electronic products, leaving American electrical engineers without jobs and the American economy without innovative products.
Becker's report concludes that the decrease in enrollment and funding could seriously dull the United States' competitive edge in science and technology. This, in turn, could affect the manufacturing sector, already in peril due to increased outsourcing in a global economy, and cause a loss of even more engineering jobs, which would then have a trickle down effect in the manufacturing sector. What could be at stake is more than the number of patents and innovations created through R&D; it could very well be America's economic prosperity.
The future of engineering. “The world that globalization is making creates a commodity out of everything,” says Michael Massey, adjunct professor and director of corporate outreach and development, Cullen College of Engineering, University of Houston. According to Massey, even engineering services have become a commodity. He points to the power of computing as the key factor to improved efficiency. “You can get anybody in the world to do it,” he says. “Computer work is making it possible to do very complex things with push buttons and programming tools that average folks can do if they're educated.”
Massey predicts that in 10 years the United States will work on less than 10% of worldwide engineering projects. This means that future American engineers will also have to work in conjunction with other engineers from around the world.
“That's the future of engineering,” Massey says. Engineers in that environment will have to be skilled in leading teams and organizing projects. “When you're that small, you don't have the resources to do the whole job,” Massey says. “You've got to use the rest of the world to get your work done.”
And the actual technical work that goes on in the United States will have to be high-end. “It's innovation that is high on the food chain, the leverage point,” Massey says. “Innovation itself takes 10% to 20% of the budget, and the rest is broadly becoming commodity. We do not have a real strong methodology for creating and managing innovation.”
Massey says that in the past, innovation occurred through more random, slower-paced research. “You could go slow because things changed slowly,” he says. “These days things change very fast, and if you're random in what you're doing, the odds are you're going to hit and miss, to your detriment.”
Training future engineers. So what should U.S. engineering programs do to increase their enrollment levels and stay competitive? What is it that the programs can teach students to enable them to succeed in a new global marketplace? Several organizations and individuals have offered their suggestions.
Some fixes are meant to work within the engineering programs themselves. The National Academy of Engineering recently proposed accrediting engineering programs at both the undergraduate and advanced levels, prompting students to earn graduate degrees before practicing professionally.
Other groups advocate training in addition to an engineering degree. IEEE offers professional development courses designed to fill in the gaps between technical engineering classes and the workplace. Taught by members of IEEE's Graduates of the Last Decade affinity group (GOLD), the training consists of project management, leadership, assertiveness, and decision-making skills. According to the principles of GOLD, graduates of engineering programs can't just be good engineers; they must also be good presenters and managers of their ideas.
To cultivate the type of engineering workforce they need, many firms now provide scholarships and work programs to students with a propensity for math and science. A company can offer lab facilities and practical, hands-on training on equipment that a university might not be able to offer. “If students can go to a company that has the latest and most expensive equipment and lab facilities available to them and they're able to apply that, that's a real plus,” says Gerald Davenport, director of the cooperative education program, University of Houston. There's also the added mutual benefit of hiring employees with a minimal learning curve once the students have graduated.
To give its students more of a real-world experience, in 2003 the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering undergraduate program began offering the Engineering Leadership and Entrepreneurism Program (ELEP). ELEP is a two-course sequence that teaches business and entrepreneurship to undergraduate seniors majoring in engineering. In the first semester, students present a business plan to a panel of outside people, including venture capitalists. The second semester requires executing the business plan. At the end of the year, the students meet with the panel to review the results. “It's really all about business-savvy behavior, in the leadership sense, one, and the entrepreneurship sense, two,” Massey says. Only the top 10% of seniors in the engineering program are eligible to take the classes.
Also in conjunction with the Cullen College of Engineering undergraduate program, companies like Baker Petrolite, Halliburton's KBR, and Kelsi Engineering participate in the Industrial Scholar Interns Program (ISIP). The ISIP Industry Partners, as the firms are called, donate money that is used for scholarships awarded to students entering first- and second-year programs. The second stage of the program connects students with the industry partners for part-time internships in the industry. Students work 20 hours a week all year and continue to attend classes at only a slightly reduced load.
The ISIP program focuses on high-aptitude students. “We drive the undergraduate quality up by applying the ISIPs to steer the best students toward us into the system and through the first two years,” says Massey. “We also combine it with the career center. There's a lot of out-of-class coaching and professional development.”
By combining an early scholarship program with a later internship and professional coaching, ISIP creates a pipeline through which high-aptitude students travel. The goal of the program is to be more systematic than the average intern program, specifically placing students into their areas of specialty in the industry and teaching them the skills they need to succeed. Currently, there are 150 students in the ISIP program, and each year the industry partners commit as many as a dozen slots to the program.
Much like the ISIP model, the trend in engineering programs is that more flexible internships are replacing the system of the 50/50 alternating co-op where one student works full-time one semester and goes to school full-time the following semester while a second student fills the alternate schedule. In order to keep up with the times, many co-op programs, such as the one founded in 1959 at the Cullen College of Engineering, are offering more flexible schedules, such as the parallel co-op; where one student works part-time and goes to school part-time for the full school year. In some cases, students are allowed to work or study full-time for two consecutive semesters and then rotate their schedule, as long as they complete the required courses and internship time allotments.
In order to provide more flexible schedules, the engineering program offers courses late in the day or in the evening. Students who are working also tend to take lighter loads. “Many of our students do not graduate in four or five years,” Massey says. “They graduate in six. The number of courses or the credit load per semester is lower for those who are working part-time.”
A longer matriculation time isn't seen as a disadvantage by firms, as long as work experience has been a part of the curriculum. “People really want smart, somewhat-seasoned-by-work-experience graduates,” Massey says. “The marketplace is calling for that.”
Getting credit where credit is due. For various reasons, mostly when location makes it difficult to travel back and forth from school to the workplace, some schools still rely on the traditional 50/50 co-op model. However, more are providing more flexible options for their students. “I prefer to define co-op to the students as a ‘documented internship,’” Davenport says. “I don't like to use the old definition of ‘alternating work and school,’ because that's not always the case. But it is always the case that the internship be documented.” The one rule of co-op that remains untouched is that the experience must be recorded on the student's transcript. At the University of Houston — where the co-op program is still under the domain of the college of engineering even though its services are non-denominational, so to speak, often matching students majoring in music or biology with industry mentors — the co-op is listed on a student's transcript like any other class, except that there isn't any credit given, instead students are given a grade based on their report submitted at the end of the semester.
Of the 800 junior colleges and universities that have co-op programs in the United States, some give credit and some do not. “To most employers and to the government, a credit is not important,” says Davenport. “They just want it documented on the transcript.” In contrast, the work component for the ISIP program isn't recorded on the transcript. That could be a problem for someone being asked to repay a student loan. “The registrar can verify that a student's in the co-op program, and they have a special letter they send,” Davenport says. “No one's ever had to pay back a loan early. Co-op has some protective services.”
According to Davenport who has worked in the university's co-op program since 1979, the transcript documentation is also what allows international students to gain valuable work experience in the United States. “When I first came here, we had very few international students on visas in the program,” he says. “Over the years, more international students wanted to get experience, and there were companies that were willing to provide that.” In order to show the government that the work experience is vital to the student's education, the training has to be documented on the transcript. “This is proof that the student is not working just for the money, but the university is recognizing the training as being very valuable to the degree,” Davenport says. He hasn't noticed any decline in the number of international students applying for co-ops. In fact, through informal discussions with his peers, it seems that there are more international students using co-op services than ever before.
Beyond the GPA. The typical ISIP applicant isn't the same as the typical co-op participant, and neither of these is anything like the stereotypical engineer. For one thing, the ISIP program specifically targets high GPA students eligible for a scholarship, whereas co-op targets a broader range of students. “The one thing I have noticed is that in the 1980s, there were some companies that were very adamant about a 3.0 grade point average,” says Davenport. “Some of the larger companies that used to require a 3.0 are now a little more flexible, accepting a 2.8 or 2.7.”
This is a result of firms wanting more well-rounded interns and co-op participants. Just because someone can test well doesn't mean they have stellar interpersonal, or soft, skills. “Many companies have found that a student with a 2.8 may be a much harder worker, more hands-on, more energetic than someone who is more academically inclined but who may not be quite as flexible,” Davenport says. In fact, companies have told the engineering career center that if they had a choice between a student with a 3.7 GPA with no practical work experience and a student with a 2.8 GPA with some co-op training, they would much prefer to hire the person with the 2.8 GPA upon graduation.
According to Davenport, this has been one of the major turnarounds he's noticed in his career in the co-op program. He cites a study that listed the top 10 qualities firms are looking for when selecting someone to interview or hire. The student's major came in first, with interview skills a close second. What was surprising about this study, though, was that co-op or internship experience came in at No. 3 and grades at No. 5. “Some of the faculty were a little bit shocked by that,” Davenport says. “It's not implying that grades aren't important. It was just saying that in today's tight job market, work experience is two steps higher on the scale than the actual grades.”
To better prepare the students for the working world, the engineering career center provides services, such as resume critiques, practice interviews, and orientation. Most engineering students do well in technical interviews, but need extra coaching on behavioral interviews. The extra lessons also benefit the students during the actual internship. Applicants must also provide an e-mail version of their resume for the program's database for better matching with industry clients. “We always try to keep everybody happy,” Davenport says. “We want the employers to be pleased with our service so they'll continue to hire from us. And likewise, we endeavor to help students get meaningful work experience and start them on their careers before they graduate. That's why any kind of internship is important.”
What companies want. According to Davenport, in the last six or seven years, companies don't just prefer their employees to have previous hands-on experience: they require it. In a competitive job market, an internship or co-op participation alone may not be enough to earn a recent graduate an interview or a job. To give their students a competitive edge, many engineering programs are incorporating marketable skills into their curriculum. For engineering and contracting firms, student interns are more than cheap labor, although in some cases that is partly how they're used.
According to Paul Haun, E.E., at Halliburton, there are two reasons his company uses co-op participants: inexpensive labor and as a ready pool for possible future full-time employees. “We can get most engineering work or similar work that engineers do for a lot less pay and without benefits,” Haun says. “That's very beneficial for us as long as we hire good co-ops.” He also uses the co-op as a recruiting tool. “A lot of our full-time employees were once co-op for us,” he says. Unfortunately, sometimes the market demands that even good students be passed up for employment when there aren't any jobs available.
But the co-op still gives employers a good idea about the type of employee a student would make. “It gives us a good baseline on that employee without committing to them,” Haun says. “At that stage, we can offer them a full-time position if we're comfortable with them. It's easier to make that decision after someone's been with you for three semesters versus someone who just interviewed with you.” Haun estimates that the co-op program accounts for at least 50% of the means for recruiting full-time employees since they began using the Houston-area college and university programs.
What Haun looks for in prospective co-op students is a 3.0 GPA, and either sophomores, (preferred), juniors, or occasionally seniors. Halliburton takes advantage of the traditional co-op model, using alternating paired students for full-time work. “What we look for is someone that's doing very well in academics but eager to try some hands-on training,” Haun says. “We're looking for willingness to apply their knowledge of what they're learning, and we also look for someone that's very adaptive, team-oriented, and self-motivated.”
Haun trusts the universities' co-op programs to match his company's needs with the qualifications of the students. “They have set up a pretty thorough mechanism,” he says. The only request he would make of the programs is to try to add a class or two to customize the education to Halliburton's specific projects. “We haven't had anything where we went back to the co-op program and said, ‘Oh, all you're students are lacking this,’” Haun says. Any changes he'd make in the co-op program would be based on what projects a specific mentor at his company is giving to the student.
Sidebar: Technology With a Business Plan: To MBA or MBE?
“We would not let an undergraduate finish his undergraduate training and move into the Master's program any more than a student is allowed to come into the MBA program without work experience,” says Michael Massey, adjunct professor and director of corporate outreach and development, Cullen College of Engineering, University of Houston. “The minimum, I think, is three years and the better is more like five.” The purpose of Cullen's Master's in Business Engineering (MBE) isn't to make engineers into businessmen; it's to create business-savvy engineers. According to Massey, these are the men and women who will be able to execute innovation, rather than the stereotypical engineer working on equations alone in a lab.
“The stand-and-go-it-alone is just disappearing,” Massey says. “If you ask ‘An engineer does what?’ the answer is he's got to be clever, market-driven, savvy about what innovations he chooses to drive into completion, and he's got to get them completed much faster than he used to and with a lot of other people's labor rather than his own. That's the trend.”
To create these partnered, collaborative, multi-organizational engineers, the MBE program focuses on creating technology with a business plan. “As much as you can't have a rich, valuable business that hasn't got a technical leverage in it, technology, which would be the lever without being connected to a strategic plan for how it fits the market, is useless,” Massey says. He compares it to having components sitting on the floor that don't make a car. “It's the context of the business that makes the technology valuable,” he concludes.