Engineering New Manufacturing Employees

0813engineering

Unique collaborative educational program aims to continue world-class manufacturing workforce

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

When the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance revealed in its latest Vitality Index that one out of every three of the region’s manufacturers planned to add workers during each quarter of 2013, it provided a bit of fire power to a program that had been in the works since 2010.

Following a survey that year showing 48 percent of New North firms would continue with capital expansion and modernization due to job growth in mechanical, electrical and environmental engineering technology, the NEW Manufacturing Alliance joined forces along with the member institutions of the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance – or NEW ERA, for short – to develop new degree programs to meet this regional, and nationwide, industry demand for more science, technology, engineering and math graduates who can help keep companies current and competitive.

“In the same survey, 15 of the companies recommended that their existing employees complete a baccalaureate in engineering technology degree,” noted NEW ERA Executive Director Linda Bartelt. “These findings demonstrate the commitment employers have to advancing the skills and knowledge of their workforce.”

Creating a solution

At a meeting this past July of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, official approval was granted for a new Leadership in Engineering Technology program, which consists of bachelor of science degrees in electrical engineering technology, mechanical engineering technology and environmental engineering technology. The highest demand in the New North has been for professionals who hold a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering technology.

What is engineering technology? It’s not exactly the same as being an engineer. There are both similarities and differences between engineering and engineering technology, explained Mark Weber, dean of trades and engineering technologies at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay.

“While they have similar skills and similar education and earn similar salaries and job titles, engineers are more theoretically based and engineering technologists are more applied,” Weber noted.

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, engineers typically focus on planning while technologists focus on implementing plans. Engineers focus more on conducting calculations to create technology to solve problems while engineering technologists focus on applying technology to solve problems.

The aforementioned NEW Manufacturing Alliance survey also noted graduates of engineering technology baccalaureate programs are well-equipped for the evolving high-tech needs of the manufacturing industry including robotics, automation, programmable logic controls, power engineering, instrumentation, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma.

The survey also found the New North contains major employers within the industries that commonly use engineering technologists, such as aerospace, biotechnology, defense, energy, water and wastewater. With its strong history in agribusiness, the region also has new opportunities in biofuels.

A unique delivery

Scott Furlong, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, noted these new degree programs are the first four-year engineering technology programs available in the New North. Before now, only associate degrees were available and students who wished to pursue a bachelor’s degree had to leave the region. There is a four-year engineering degree program through UW-Platteville which can be taken entirely through UW-Fox in Menasha, but it doesn’t focus on engineering technology.

Through this unique, new collaborative program, students can pursue their coursework through any of the NEW ERA participating schools: UW-Green Bay, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Fond du Lac, UW-Fox Valley in Menasha, UW-Manitowoc, UW-Marinette and UW-Sheboygan; Fox Valley, Lakeshore, Moraine Park and Northeast Wisconsin technical colleges; and the College of Menominee Nation.

This first-ever collaborational degree for the region creates multiple entry paths for students, Furlong said. Students can choose to start and finish one of the degrees at UW-Green Bay or UW-Oshkosh, or they can begin with another NEW ERA partner institution and complete their degree at either Green Bay or Oshkosh, the two institutions which eventually will award the graduating student their degree.

Professionals who already hold engineering and higher education credentials can inquire about receiving credit for previous learning and job experiences toward this engineering technology program degree.

The widespread collaboration additionally enables the sharing of lab facilities when necessary. Without the need to build new lab space at any of the NEW ERA higher education institutions, students can take lab courses in state-of-the-art facilities best equipped to meet curricular goals and learning outcomes, explained Bartelt.

“This program reflects a unique and distinctive collaboration among NEW ERA institutions and the business community to make highly skilled engineering technology careers accessible to students in the New North region while meeting the high demand of businesses for well-prepared engineering technology graduates,” said Bartelt.

The collaborative approach creates efficiencies for taxpayer-funded schools by taking advantage of assets already in place, noted Jeff Rafn, president of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

“We’re sharing resources, improving credit transfer between institutions and providing access to the basic classes all over northeast Wisconsin,” Rafn said. “That makes this the best solution not only for our business community, but for taxpayers and students as well.”

Moving into the workforce

Another benefit for engineering technology students will be last-semester internship opportunities with New North engineering firms, energy companies and manufacturers such as Lindquist Machine Corp. in Ashwaubenon, which previously offered internships to engineering technology students often coming from outside of the region. In turn, employers will have access to a pool of science, technology, engineering and math students with fresh perspectives.

“It is challenging to find qualified and experienced engineers in the job market today,” said Mark Kaiser, president and CEO of Lindquist Machine. “This degree will provide potential employees that have well-rounded engineering backgrounds. This will allow manufacturers to offer flexibility, respond quickly to changes in market and customer conditions, and help keep costs competitive.”

Citing his passion for the long-term success of the manufacturing industry in the New North, Kaiser has been an active advocate for increased engineering training in the region. The new engineering technology program, he said, “will allow us to remain competitive on a global basis which should keep our manufacturers growing, thus creating new jobs.”

Involving private industry in helping develop and advocate for the program was critical to educators’ success in getting it off the ground, Bartelt said.

“Industry partners are committed to supporting the engineering technology program in the form of internships, expert guest speakers, research collaborations, touring of facilities, advisement on programs and graduate placements,” noted Bartelt.

Tim Weyenberg, chair of the board for Green Bay-based environmental engineering firm Foth and a member of the engineering technology advisory group at UW-Green Bay, noted a couple of unique aspects about this new educational initiative.

“The first is that the curriculum is being created with the customer (the employer) in the planning phase such that the ‘product’ will more likely better suit the customer’s needs right after graduation, not five years into a career,” Weyenberg said. “The second is that there will be considerable emphasis in the engineering technology program to directly involve the students in the actual workplace with meaningful experience opportunities.”

He noted challenges presented by the shortage of engineering technologists include restricted growth to support the demand manufacturers in the region are experiencing and having to look outside the state and even the country to find talent. Weyenberg is among the manufacturing advocates who have pushed for improved training in the New North, for two particular reasons, he said.

“One is that the New North needs more technical people in science, math, engineering and technology and anything we can do to educate our own should be done! Secondly, we want our children to stay in the New North, and with more trained people we can attract more business and offer them great career opportunities right here.”

Preparing to launch

The new engineering technology programs get under way next month with the start of the 2013-14 academic year.

“We expect this program will hit the ground running, benefiting from a surge of strong enrollment from students throughout the New North, noted Lane Earns, UW-Oshkosh Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. “They will be students eager to dive into a high-quality and high-tech program never before offered in our region. These degrees are built upon an education that is accessible and develops career-propelling, quality-of-life-enhancing knowledge and leadership in high demand by regional employers.”

Student awareness of the program is increasing and interest is high.

“Students are very interested and requesting information to apply,” said NWTC’s Weber. “We have literally hundreds of associate degree engineering technology grads over the past 20 years in mechanical design and electrical engineering technology and related degrees – electro-mechanical engineering technology, automation engineering technology, electronic. Many of these people want and need to complete their engineering technology degrees while living in our area – they are place-bound. Plus we want to keep them here in our communities.”

Ultimately, though, this first attempt at a collaborative degree program in the New North region demonstrated a genuine ability for educators and private industry leaders to come together to develop meaningful solutions to workforce challenges. Hopefully it can be a model for additional programs to follow in the future.

“With these collaborative degree programs, our institutions will be better able to respond to changing educational and workforce needs here in northeastern Wisconsin,” said UW-Green Bay Chancellor Tom Harden. “Together, we look forward to better serving the students of our region, and ultimately boosting economic development in the New North.”

Robin Bruecker has 17 years experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at robinbrueck@yahoo.com.