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Sunday, 30 August 2015 22:00

World-wise Engineers: Globalization molds next generation of engineers, higher education practices

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Grand Valley State University engineering students stand near their products during the 2014 Senior Design Conference. Grand Valley State University engineering students stand near their products during the 2014 Senior Design Conference. COURTESY PHOTO

The globalized workforce has reshaped how universities in West Michigan and beyond educate their engineering students.

In part that’s because students need new skills outside of their technical expertise to navigate the complexities of careers that require them to interface with co-workers and customers from other parts of the globe.

That’s certainly been the case for engineers at Eaton Corp., which is headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, and operates facilities in Galesburg, Portage and Grand Rapids in West Michigan.

“We are a global organization and our workforce is global,” said Mark Dickinson, human resources director for corporate technology at Eaton. “It’s rare you have one team developing one product at one site. With that comes the skills of handling the global workplace.”

At any point, the engineering team at Eaton’s Galesburg facility may be on a conference call with other team members in India, the Czech Republic or Italy, Dickinson said.

“We look for (a global mentality) in students,” he said. “This generation is much more global and networked — that’s a big plus. … That’s how they socialize and how they work.”

Those same globalization pressures that impact how engineering departments communicate and conduct business are driving changes in how universities train their graduates.

Grand Valley State University’s Seymour & Esther Padnos College of Engineering and Computing requires its students to participate in co-op programs that begin when they declare their major in the spring and summer semesters and continue on and off for 28 months.

GVSU currently partners with a variety of West Michigan companies including Bissell Inc., Steelcase Inc., General Motors, Robert Bosch LLC and DornerWorks Ltd. for its co-op program, said Chris Plouff, interim director for GVSU’s engineering program.

While in the past these companies mostly kept their students stateside, they’re now sending engineering students to international facilities to complete a portion of their co-op programs, Plouff said.

Currently, five students from GVSU are working in Germany and one student is living in France for a full co-op semester.

“We’ve had some really unique advancements in some of those co-op programs,” Plouff said. “Ten years ago, a student would co-op at a local company. That’s all they’d do and they’d have a career in West Michigan. More and more, we have students being sent as part of their undergraduate program overseas to operations. It’s so critical that (companies) operate globally that they are including their (interns) more and more.”

Western Michigan University (WMU) also recognizes the importance of training a globalized workforce.

“Globalization is changing the way engineers work and how corporations employ,” said Houssam Toutanji, who became dean of WMU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences in July 2015.

Since entering his new role, Toutanji has engaged in a “listening tour,” taking time to speak with alumni, industry partners and faculty to determine what the college’s strengths are and where it will need to improve to create a “roadmap” that prepares engineering students for the job market, he said.

Part of Toutanji’s roadmap for WMU’s program includes forging new partnerships with overseas universities in emerging markets such as China.

“Globalization now is making the interaction between overseas and U.S. universities a two-way street,” Toutanji said. “We are trying to promote relationships between our university and different overseas institutions.”

WMU is currently working with the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology to develop a “two-plus-two” program where Chinese engineering students spend two years in Shanghai and their remaining two years at WMU before earning a degree. As it stands, the program would only be open to Chinese students, but Toutanji hopes eventually to expand it to

WMU students as well.


Beyond being comfortable with global interactions, engineering students need to have a more multifaceted skill set to be successful in the changing business environment.

While most students graduating from engineering programs in West Michigan are well equipped, at least technically speaking, manufacturers say they want new graduates to have more developed leadership and communication skills, according the university leaders.

“(Manufacturers) are looking for students that not only have the technical knowhow but also leadership, which includes communication, the ability to manage projects and integrate a lot of information and knowledge to get things accomplished,” Plouff said.

Engineering students also need to have more training in articulating complex technical topics, said Bob Newton, director of product engineers at Grand Rapids-based Bissell Inc. That way, when they graduate, they’ll be better able to work in small teams with professionals in a range of disciplines.

“The important point on communication is that they’re able to convey the message in a simple format,” Newton said.

That need for communication extends to everyday interaction and correspondence as well, said Dickinson of Eaton.

“We’re still a relationship-based company,” he said. “We often have to coach new graduates and tell them you may have to pick up the phone and not just send an email.”


Amid manufacturers’ constant demands for new engineering talent, the number of students interested in the field has also increased, albeit not fast enough to satisfy companies’ personnel needs.

“Typically, there is always a need for more engineers — I hear that quite often,” Toutanji of WMU said. “I also hear that we don’t graduate enough engineers.”

Over the last three years, WMU’s engineering program has graduated an average of 320 undergraduates per year, plus 110 master’s students and 10 doctoral candidates, and the number increases slightly each year, Toutanji said.

GVSU has also seen its engineering enrollment grow. The university had 410 students enrolled in its freshman engineering course this year, up from 250 engineering students in 2012, Plouff said.

Growth in West Michigan’s engineering job market mirrors the increasing enrollment numbers at local universities.

In total, West Michigan contains nearly 15,000 people in engineering jobs, with more than 11,500 of those positions concentrated in the Grand Rapids metropolitan area alone, according to Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI) data provided by The Right Place Inc.

EMSI included Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Lake, Mason, Mecosta, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana, Osceola and Ottawa counties in its West Michigan data.

Additionally, the statistics show the number of engineering positions has increased nearly 29 percent since 2010. By contrast, engineering jobs increased at a rate of 7.7 percent nationwide during the same time period.

Out of the numerous categories of engineers, those associated with the manufacturing sector tended to grow at higher rates in West Michigan compared to engineers in other industries such as biomedicine and agriculture, according to the EMSI data.

From 2010 to 2015, the number of materials engineering jobs increased 37 percent while industrial engineering positions spiked 36 percent.


In addition to preparing students for working in the evolving engineering sector, both universities and employers need to focus on keeping those graduates within the state, sources said.

“Our goal should be to graduate a good number of engineers, but we also have to keep in mind innovative ways to keep them in Michigan,” Toutanji said.

On the university side, that comes by providing students a direct pipeline into regional companies.

For its part, WMU partners with a variety of regional manufacturers — including Eaton and Kalamazoo-based Stryker Corp. — for internships and co-op programs,Toutanji said.

But convincing graduates to remain in the state may come down to allaying their concerns over wages. While the number of engineering jobs in West Michigan has grown faster than the national average, median earnings for engineers in the area have not. West Michigan engineers earn a median hourly income of $30.88 compared to a national median hourly income of $36.03, according to the EMSI data.

To keep engineering talent in the region once they’re at a company, manufacturers have relied, in part, on continued internal training programs.

Because Bissell works in the relatively small floor-care industry, the company struggles to find experienced floor-care product engineers, Newton said. As such, the Grand Rapids manufacturer typically hires young, recently graduated engineers and provides them with training internally.

“A good point about Bissell is that we have a big enough organization, so we’re able to bring those young engineers in and bring up their knowledge on what we do,” he said.

Meanwhile, Eaton tries to rotate its new engineers through different sectors in the company over their first few years, while offering specialized training and challenging assignments to keep them engaged in their work, Dickinson said.

Overall, Dickinson is positive about the future talent pool and the outlook for engineers at Eaton.

“Future engineers will have to know some innovation skills which are different than engineering skills,” Dickinson said. “Engineers are there to solve problems. Innovation is a subset of good engineering, which is asking the right question and finding out what problems there are to solve. The universities that (teach innovation) well, you can see that in their students.”

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