Engineering students who desire jobs in the manufacturing field may not be as well prepared as they thought.

Are you an employer who thinks engineers can come out of a box, ready to go? If so, you might be disappointed. Much discussion surrounds the apparent "skills gap" that exists between what newly graduated engineering students know and their job requirements as manufacturing engineers. Are engineering schools at fault or do employers simply expect too much from graduates? Traditionally, the manufacturing engineer’s role is to direct and coordinate the process of making products from the beginning to the end. As companies try to improve their product’s quality and financial bottomline, manufacturing engineers have to figure out how to accomplish this. Manufacturing engineers work with all aspects of manufacturing—from production control and materials handling to automation. But with so many innovations coming on-line, today’s manufacturing engineers are expected to know more and do more than ever before.

The Skills Gap

According to Jack Day, CEM CMfgE, chairman of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Chapter 69 (Oakland/Macomb, MI), the "skills gap" relates to expectations placed upon graduating engineers. "One manufacturer may expect somebody to work in a microenvironment. However, the employer then realizes that the engineer has more of a general background and little experience in microbionics," he says.

Day believes that skills gaps can be divided into two sections: technical and human. Technical skills deal with specialization and technical specialties. He claims that employers who find that their expectations are not being met probably don’t have a clear idea of what they’re pursuing—especially if they’re expecting a new college graduate to have highly honed technical skills.

He cites another gap in human skills. "Most engineering programs don’t focus on human skills, as far as how to work together as a team," says Day. "That is one gap that I think is more commonly referred to as a skills gap. And that is not something that I think we should rely on engineering schools to provide," says Day.

For several years, SME’s Manufacturing Education Plan (MEP) has identified skills gaps or "compentency gaps." By using a survey, Web site questionnaire and a series of workshops covering critical segments of the manufacturing sector, the society has identified the following 15 gaps:

  • Business knowledge skills.
  • Supply chain management.
  • Project management.
  • International perspective by understanding cultural diversity and differences in manufacturing approaches.
  • Materials.
  • Manufacturing process control.
  • Written and oral communication.
  • Product and process design.
  • Quality.
  • Specific manufacturing processes.
  • Manufacturing systems.
  • Problem solving.
  • Teamwork.
  • Personal attributes.
  • Engineering fundamentals.
Currently, SME sees the two largest gaps as being business knowledge skills and supply chain management. These are followed closely by project management and international perspective.

But what is contributing to the skills gap? One factor may be that universities can only include a certain amount of material into a 4-year program. "On the manufacturing side, there are so many different options of the processes and the materials. And I think within the last few years, universities have cut content from the undergraduate programs, in some cases, to expedite the graduates so that they can finish up in a 4-year degree. But I think it’s just a matter of not having enough space in the curriculum for everything that they may eventually see," says Jess Comer, Ph.D., a mechanical engineering professor at Iowa State University (Ames, IA).

What Can Engineering Schools Do?

Tina Dominguez, manufacturing engineer at Arrow Electronics Inc. (Sun Valley, CA), feels that universities can offer more courses regarding current manufacturing concerns, such as eliminating waste and cost, and simplifying processes. However, this route may simply not be feasible. Due to time constraints, there is really only so much that engineering schools can do to improve the students’ knowledge base.

Comer offers another alternative. Alliances between academic programs and industry, along with professional societies, could help bring curricula up-to-date.

SME does just this. Not only does the MEP identify gaps in knowledge, it also tries to remedy the situation. The MEP is a joint effort of SME and the SME Education Foundation and is the basis of the foundation’s grant programs. It works with North American industry and community colleges and universities to ensure engineering students acquire the appropriate knowledge and skills to become effective contributors in the manufacturing workforce.

To counteract these gaps, MEP proposes the following recommendations:

  • Give preference to grant proposals addressing the biggest gaps with industry partners.
  • Disseminate information about programs that successfully address the skills gap and strengthen efforts to replicate these programs.
  • Increase involvement of former and current project directors for future grants.
  • Increase funding by seeking alliances with similar groups.
  • Conduct the next review of skills gaps in 2006.
In addition to SME’s help, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Committee on Engineering Education proposed establishing a research center for teaching and learning in engineering. The center’s main objective is to increase support for engineering education among senior faculty and opinion leaders. This center will promote scholarship and innovation in engineering education, with an emphasis on practical advice for the classroom. NAE also wants to establish a strong collaboration between the academic and industrial sectors by having faculty and industry fellows participate in the center.

What Can Students Do?

Engineering schools can’t do it all. Students may simply have to pick up some of the slack themselves. And for this reason, internships can’t be stressed enough. "I think that when you’re in school you have a very different opinion of what life is going to be out there, and more often than not, it is very different than what you expected. And it’s not better or worse; it’s just different than what you expected. I think an internship is just a great opportunity, and I think companies should take advantage of that," says Dominguez.

Day also suggests part-time employment. "Students that want to be successful in manufacturing engineering should pursue part-time employment. This is one good way of improving your people skills, especially if you get part-time employment in a manufacturing environment. It will temper this idealism that is being taught at the school with the practicalities of what you’ve got to work with in the real world," he says.

Another option is extracurricular activities, such as memberships in professional associations. Most of these associations provide memberships at discounted costs to students. This puts students into an environment where they have access to people in all stages of their careers. Established engineers can mentor and help students as they are starting or leaving school. They can also help accustom students to the realities of the business world.

Certification is also available to manufacturing engineers as they come out of school. "This says that there is an independent organization of manufacturing engineers who says that I learned enough to walk out on the factory floor and be an asset. I encourage students to get this certification as they’re coming out of school," says Day. However, as Day explains, certification also means that engineers are committing themselves to becoming recertified, which means that they have to involve themselves in a program of continuous education.

The Learning Never Stops

Improvements in processes and innovative assembly techniques never stop, so why should learning? Therefore, continuing education after graduation is a must. Most universities offer seminars and courses on current technologies. Many universities also offer extension courses for even more in-depth knowledge.

Of course, a master’s degree never hurts either, particularly a master’s in business administration. Having a broader knowledge of the business aspects of a company is always beneficial. "I think engineers aren’t exposed enough to the business aspect of the company. I don’t think they’re real privy to that, because they’re viewed as being engineers and only interested in the science. But any engineer would be a better engineer if he or she understood the business aspect. It makes them more well-rounded, and better able to make decisions," says Dominguez.

Suffice it to say, engineering students are never going to be fully prepared, but they can be better prepared. "I think they’re [engineers] prepared. They’re as prepared as they were in the past. And I think they’re ready to walk into an environment. The problem is that, because of industry demands, they just don’t have the margins anymore for development times. I think there is always going to be a gap as to what we can do here and what they need in industry, but I don’t think we’ll ever get it absolutely fine-tuned. This is always something that you’re striving for. From the industry side, they have to realize that they’re partnering in it. There are certain responsibilities that they have to take on if they start to expect students to be prepared—if it’s supporting laboratories, internships or whatever. That all feeds into it," says Comer.