Bridging the Engineering Education Gap

Sept. 4, 2013
Two-year technical colleges are increasingly filling the skills gap by educating workers in the engineering skills U.S. industry sorely needs. During a visit to TriCounty Technical College, I learned how this college is partnering with companies such as BMW, Bosch, and Michelin to create a pipeline of skilled workers.

At The Automation Conference in May 2013, Dean Gary Bertoline from Purdue University gave a presentation on how a “fatal flaw” in engineering education—implemented more than 50 years ago—continues to negatively impact manufacturing workforce development. The crux of his presentation focused on how the university system emphasizes proficiency in theoretical engineering concepts rather than educating students about practical engineering applications. (Access a video of Dean Bertoline’s presentation from The Automation Conference via the image box in the upper right portion of this article.)

While Dean Bertoline stressed how universities need to adapt their engineering education programs to provide more practical engineering skills, thereby providing the market with engineers who have the skills industry needs most, one attendee in particular received confirmation that the educational path being provided by the school he is affiliated with is on the right path. That attendee was Accounties Lashan Smith, the program coordinator for Industrial Electronics Technology at TriCounty Technical College in Pendleton, S.C. He approached me after Bertoline’s presentation to tell me about how TriCounty Technical College was delivering exactly the type of engineering education Bertoline was advocating to bolster the manufacturing workforce in the U.S.

Following our discussion, I took up Smith’s offer to visit TriCounty Technical College to learn more about their engineering programs and their co-op agreements with major manufacturers in their area, such as BMW, Bosch, Michelin, and Schneider Electric. During my visit, I met with Smith and Cheryl Garrison, coordinator of job placement career services at TriCounty Technical College.

Garrison explained how effective the college’s co-op partnerships with local industry have been. She started working at the college in October 2012, with just five co-op agreements in place. Less than a year since starting work at the college, Garrison has grown the program to 19 co-ops with companies such as Blue Ridge Electric, BMW, Borg Warner, Bosch, Central Textiles, Duke Energy, Electrolux, Imperial Die Casting, Johnson Controls, Kongsburg Automotive, Michelin, Orian Rug, Schneider Electric, Shaw Industries, Unitex, US Engine Valve, and Walgreens Distribution Centers.

“Every co-op is different,” Garrison explains, “the company directs us in what they want. The typical framework for the co-op involves a student working at the company for 20 hours a week for one semester in exchange for 12 credit hours. The main goal of co-ops for the companies is to provide them with a pipeline of trained workers.”

TriCounty Technical College currently has about 70 students active in co-ops, with a near-term goal of placing 100 students in co-ops.

“Co-ops typically involve a student shadowing a mentor or plant floor technician,” says Garrison. “At Schneider Electric, for example, the students are taught how to do panel assembly and can even move on to QA (quality assurance) training.  Companies realize that support for programs like the ones at TriCounty Technical College are an investment in their facilities. Otherwise, they can’t be assured that they can get the workers they need to run their facilities.”

Underscoring the success of the educational programs at TriCounty Technical College, Smith notes that: “Michelin tests student for co-ops with a 20 question math test that has to be competed in 15 minutes or less and students have to get at least 18 questions correct. Michelin has told us that TriCounty Technical College students have the highest success rate on this test than any other technical college they test at in North America.”

The two-year programs offered at TriCounty Technical College that attract the highest level of co-op interest are the Industrial Electronics Technology, Mechatronics Technology, General Engineering Technology, and Machine Tool Technology programs.

Garrison says the college averages more than 200 students in the Industrial Electronics Technology and Mechatronics programs each year.

Following is a listing of several courses taught as part of the college’s three main engineering courses of study:
Industrial Engineering Technology classes include: DC/AC circuits, motor controls, digital electronics, solid state devices, industrial instruments, programmable controllers, electrical installation/codes, technical/systems troubleshooting, hydraulics and pneumatics, plus physics, algebra/geometry and trigonometry.
Mechatronics classes include: industrial print reading, mechanical power applications, industrial electricity, industrial instruments, hand tool operations, electrical control devices, solid state devices, hydraulics and pneumatics, reliability centered maintenance, robotics and automated controls, AC/DC machines and electrical codes, statistical process control, programmable logic controllers, plus physics, algebra/geometry and trigonometry, social sciences.
General Engineering Technology classes include: electrical circuits, digital circuits, engineering technology applications and programming, photonics, engineering computer graphics, computer controlled machinery, sensors, automated work cell design, active devices, hydraulics and pneumatics, programmable controllers, robotics, integrated technology, materials, plus specializations in pulp and paper, wastewater, chemical engineering, and robotics and automation.

Siemens and Rockwell Automation are two companies that provide much of the automation equipment used at TriCounty Technical College for their courses.

“We offer two levels of PLC courses,” Smith says. “The first level course focuses on ladder logic, I/O, troubleshooting, etc. The second level focuses on the integration of PLCs and HMIs, working with specific types of PLCSs, and covers some industrial networking topics. In one of my recent PLC classes, I had three students in the classes that were working in co-ops. We were able to use their experience from the co-ops to have them aid other students in learning how to work with the PLCs. That experience helps train those students in how to be mentors and trainers themselves eventually.”

Addressing the disconnect that currently exists between industry and its ability to find workers largely stems from the emphasis on the theoretical side of engineering, Smith says. “There are lots of degreed engineers out there, but not all of them have strong applied skills and some of them may not want to get their hands dirty to the level required by some of these jobs.” He also indicated that pay levels for some of these jobs are a factor for some engineers with four-year university degrees. “The starting pay rate for many of these jobs are in the $20 per hour pay range,” he says.

On the other hand, there are companies like Transocean, which recently came to TriCounty Technical College to recruit graduating students. Transocean was looking to recruit workers out of the Industrial Engineering Technology and Mechatronics programs. According to Garrison, the jobs they were hiring for start at around $135,000 a year.

Transocean approached TriCounty Technical College and other technical colleges because “they kept getting people applying for jobs who did not have any of the skills they needed,” Garrison says.

Smith adds that TriCounty even offers welding courses. “Two companies that supply John Deere and Caterpillar are moving to this area because the welding programs at TriCounty Technical College can help provide them the trained workers they need,” he said.

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