Training the Engineers of the Future | Cover Story | insightonbusiness.com
With “engineer” consistently landing on the list of Northeast Wisconsin’s top 10 hardest jobs to fill and cost estimates as high as $50,000 to lure an engineer from outside the region, two New North universities are stepping up their games and developing programs aimed directly at addressing manufacturers’ needs in their own backyards.
About a decade ago, following a landmark workforce survey, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and University of Wisconsin-Green Bay began building engineering technology programs where none had existed before. UWO Department of Engineering and Engineering Technology Chair Greg Kleinheinz says his university’s engineering curriculum has changed every year since it was created — a pace of change that is almost unheard of in higher education — and this year added two entirely new programs, including biomedical and automation engineering technology.
At UWGB, officials have gone on to create a full-fledged engineering college, which debuted in 2018 thanks in large part to a $5 million donation from former KI CEO Richard Resch. Today Dean John Katers says the Resch School of Engineering has a 100% job placement rate and that almost all its hires are occurring right here in Northeast Wisconsin — a region where manufacturing represents nearly a quarter of the employment base but which houses only the one, young college of engineering.
The growth of engineering at both UW System schools is happening against what is in many ways a dark and stormy backdrop. In June, lawmakers rejected funding for UW-Madison to construct a new engineering facility and cut the overall system budget by $32 million — a decision that has led to campus closures, layoffs, hiring freezes, furloughs, pay raise freezes and program cuts across the state that UWGB Chancellor Michael Alexander described in an Oct. 17 letter to faculty and staff as feeling like “a personal attack.”
“My heart goes out to our colleagues across the state who have and will be affected,” Alexander wrote. “I struggle daily to make sense of everything happening in the world around us today. However, I refuse to lose my optimism for what education can do for individuals and society.”
UWO Provost Ed Martini says that Kleinheinz’s team has been a model for how education can mutually serve individuals and society.
“It’s consistent with the mission and vision of UW Oshkosh to solve the problems of the region,” Martini says. “When we talk about the region, manufacturing’s the ballgame. We need to be able to be the partner of choice to help them solve their talent needs, supply chain needs, whatever it may be.”
Degrees in demand
UWO announced the addition of its automation engineering degree program in July, and Kleinheinz says it’s already getting a great response, even though coursework won’t technically begin until fall 2024.
“Our advisory board kept telling us, we’re kind of living Industry 4.0 right now — but there’s Industry 5.0; we need to vision forward,” Kleinheinz says. “So we did sort of what I would call an environmental scan of other programs; we contacted 25 programs from around the country and every one of those had experienced tremendous growth.
“And so here we are.”
To offer the automation engineering degree, Kleinheinz says the university will be offering about five new courses and repackaging some existing classes that have been highly successful, such as mechatronics. Companies, he says, have also stepped up to support the program; Waupaca Foundry donated a robotic arm.
Biomedical and automation join electronic, mechanical and environmental in UWO’s suite of engineering technology bachelor’s degrees. Kleinheinz says UWO’s engineering students come from three distinct pools of learners: technical college transfers, traditional four-year students, and existing industry employees seeking degree completion and career advancement. The third group is done in a cohort model and has received past support from the Department of Workforce Development. And as of right now, demand far outpaces supply for these degrees, Kleinheinz says.
“The last number I saw is that there’s about 14,000 people in the Valley who have associate’s degrees and are in positions that could benefit from that,” he says. “If we had the bandwidth here, we could expand the cohort. But we’re just a small department.”
UWGB’s Resch School, which incorporates both computer science and engineering disciplines, currently offers seven degree programs: computer science, mathematics and statistics, electrical engineering technology, mechanical engineering technology, environmental engineering technology, mechanical engineering (which is also soon to be offered at the university’s Sheboygan campus), and electrical engineering. Katers says the electrical engineering program is the newest and has grown rather quickly to 60 students since 2021. The university dedicated a $5.7 million facility last December.
When the college was initially founded five years ago, Katers says there was high demand from two-year transfers. Today the university is seeing more traditional four-year engineering students.
Katers says offering both engineering and engineering technology degrees has allowed UWGB to cater to more specific student and industry needs. While one of the primary differentiators is the amount of required math, he says the difference essentially boils down to applied versus theoretical concepts.
“In the industries we have in this region, there’s a great need for both of these types of people,” Katers says. “I hear every day when I’m talking to companies that they need techs out in the field, but they also need people doing design.”
Katers says the Resch School wouldn’t exist today without the support of industry, and he looks forward to strengthening those partnerships and opportunities in the future now that some of the front-end work of establishing the college has slowed down. He is also proud to see UWGB engineering grads entering the workforce; he tells students that they’re likely to be the first UWGB engineers at their companies, so doing a good job behooves not only them but also the university as it continues to build and grow.
“This has really been a five-decade goal to have a school of engineering in Northeast Wisconsin,” Katers says. “It took the right group of people and the right mentality to push it over the finish line.”
The softer side
Mark Kaiser, president and CEO of Lindquist Machine Corporation, is among the manufacturers looking to hire engineering graduates in Northeast Wisconsin. He has been working alongside the NEW Manufacturing Alliance to help guide engineering students and educators in an area many agree is even more important than technical training: “soft” skills.
“We’ve got to be competitive against countries with much lower labor costs,” Kaiser says. “And the only way to compete is to be more productive, be faster, come up with unique solutions. And the way you do that is by having a workforce that is highly collaborative and able to resolve conflict.”
These employability skills, NEWMA Executive Director Ann Franz says, are consistently mentioned by manufacturers as needed not only by engineers, but in all types of manufacturing jobs. In October, NEWMA debuted a series of “How to be Successful in the Workplace” videos that are available to K-12 educators. Franz says it’s an issue the alliance has been asked to work on for 17 years.
Bill Fournet, a leadership consultant who recently delivered the keynote address at the Manufacturing First Expo & Conference, says the pace of technology has only magnified the importance of these skills.
“It used to be that we hired for technical expertise and experience. Over time, I need a higher order mindset,” Fournet told conference attendees Oct. 25. He highlighted adaptability, awareness, resiliency and judgment as the four most important things to look for when hiring.
Kurtis Butrymowicz, engineering manager for Hart Design & Manufacturing, says the number one trait he is looking for when hiring an engineer is “problem solver.” For this, he says he often has good luck hiring engineers who participated in extracurricular activities like solar car and Baja racing teams that require them to collaborate, follow a budget and explore R&D.
“It’s having experience with ‘when you break it, you don’t get dejected — you just go back to the drawing board,’” he says. “To have those experiences already in your rearview mirror is [valuable].”
Indeed, extracurricular activities are among the opportunities Kleinheinz and Katers note as important for helping students build soft skills. At both institutions, engineering courses not only require written and oral presentations, but also team projects that are frequently done in coordination with industry. Internships and co-ops are also highly encouraged. Marine Travelift recently hired UWGB’s first-ever engineering co-op student for a seven-month experience.
“Summer internships are great, but in a field as complicated as engineering it is difficult to make a lasting impact in one short summer. As soon as a student finds their footing in the company, they are on their way back to school for the fall,” Matt Chike, chief engineer at Marine Travelift, said in a press release. “With a co-op, they can expand their engineering skills and work on high-level, meaningful projects for the company. An engineering co-op position is also one of the best ways to recruit local college talent to your company.”
Butrymowicz and Kaiser agree that it takes about one year for a new engineer to get technologically up to speed in a manufacturing environment, and that the learning curve is to be expected. Given the staggering pace of technology change, Katers says UWGB prioritizes investment in equipment that meets the core functions of engineering as opposed to trying to keep up with the Joneses. But pay attention to the technical skills new grads bring to the workplace, Butrymowicz says — he credits a new hire at Hart with much of the success of the company’s 3D printing operation.
Ultimately, it’s that old adage about college “teaching how to learn” that proves important in educating the next generation of engineers.
“The students that start today are going to be working on things that don’t even exist today,” Kleinheinz says. “In trying to give an 18-year-old a perspective of a 30-year career in something, they need critical thinking and problem solving. And they can be the best engineer in the world, but if they can’t write a memo — I mean, they have to get those skills. I feel like a parent making them eat their vegetables sometimes, but it’s important.”
For Kaiser, industry can and should play a role, whether it’s through participation in advisory boards, opening its doors to universities or participating in organizations like NEWMA.
“We can’t push this off and say it’s the colleges’ problem, that they need to own this,” Kaiser says. “No, we need to own it. We need to be driving to solutions and getting engaged with the colleges to do this.”
More is more
Ask Katers if there are any specific pieces of feedback he’s valued from his conversations with industry and his answer is simple: “Yeah. Produce more engineers.”
“I worked in manufacturing,” he says. “I love manufacturing. I love seeing the really cool products we make in Northeast Wisconsin, and we’re doing everything we can to support these industries.”
UWO’s Martini agrees.
“We’ve got the demand; we’ve got the jobs,” he says. “If we can continue to be a net talent importer, [that] helps everyone — not just manufacturers.”