For today’s engineering graduates, technical expertise remains paramount, but companies are asking more of their young workers, especially when it comes to so-called soft skills and the basics of business.
That’s the view of employers and educators who say young engineers must possess technical expertise in their field, but also be well versed in a variety of other skillsets ranging from communication to business acumen.
New engineers should be prepared to “hit the ground running” in a variety of different aspects of the business, according to Julie Davidson, talent acquisition manager at Grand Haven-based automotive supplier Shape Corp., which manufactures energy impact systems and vehicle structural components.
“When we’re interviewing, we’re really looking for the critical thinking piece,” Davidson said. “Because Baby Boomers are retiring and Gen X isn’t as big, there is a higher demand on Millennials. We’re expecting them to perform at a two-year graduate level.”
While colleges around West Michigan have added soft skills into their engineering curriculums over time, companies say engineers versed in lean manufacturing, purchasing, project management and other non-technical skills will continue to be in high demand.
“The stereotype of being on a CAD tube all day is an old stereotype,” said Paul Plotkowski, dean of the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). “Everyone manages an interdisciplinary team, every one of them has to manage the finances on the project, every engineer in their own way is managing some part of the enterprise. You don’t design in isolation. You design in the context of your client, community and team you’re working on it with. It’s a collaborative enterprise.”
GVSU has crafted its engineering program to have a strong grounding in liberal arts and sciences so that graduates can better learn the soft skills that employers are demanding and remain flexible as the role of engineers changes over time, Plotkowski said.
Western Michigan University (WMU) also has recognized the need to include more business-oriented skills into its engineering curriculum. WMU recently launched a collaboration between its College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Haworth College of Business to teach engineering students important entrepreneurial skills, said Houssam Toutanji, dean of WMU’s engineering college.
“There is a need for entrepreneurial thinking for our engineers,” Toutanji said. “Even if you’re an inventor, how do you sell your idea, how do you present the product, how do you manage a small company if you’re a startup?”
While many engineering programs have emphasized soft skills training, Mark Lindquist, founder of Wyoming-based Rapid-Line Inc., would like to see student engineers have a better understanding of return on investment when developing projects.
“They’re not shy about spending my money. They see the latest tech and they’re anxious to go after it,” said Lindquist, who retired in June and sold his business in an employee stock ownership plan. “They come with a funding proposal for a project and you ask how you’re going to get that back and it’s sort of a deer in the headlights look.”
Despite integrating a great deal of new material into their engineering programs, universities can struggle when it comes to finding ways to expand their curricula, Plotkowski said.
“The expectation is that grads will have more tech breadth, depth, more communication skills, business acumen yet no one wants us to take anything out,” he said of the academic programs. “How we keep up and adjust the balance is based on the constituents and the feedback we get from them.”
‘HIRING FOR POTENTIAL’
At the same time that West Michigan employers are demanding more business acumen and soft skills from their engineers, companies have also adjusted their hiring decisions to account for what engineering graduates bring to the table overall.
For Holland-based Motus Integrated Technologies, an automotive supplier specializing in interior components including visors and headliners, that means hiring for a college graduate’s potential, not necessarily his or her performance in school, said Engineering Director David Ozios.
“It may be a little different from company to company, but what I’m training my managers to do is to hire for talent and potential,” Ozios said. “That’s what I look for, where in the past you might be looking at G.P.A. or something like that. I’m really trying to hire them for potential.”
Ozios, who manages a staff of 70 engineers at Motus, said he tries to identify clues that could convey an applicant’s work ethic. That could range from the projects the student worked on while attending college to what the person did between semesters, he said. Ozios also targets students who have held leadership positions in their class projects.
While millennials have been stereotyped over the years for being lazy and generally lacking social and professional skills, Ozios stresses that employers should make some concessions given how different this generation of engineers is from previous groups.
“People looking for college graduates have to realize it is a different generation,” he said. “It’s not what we were driving for 10 years ago. If you can find someone with good communication skills and the ability to write very well, that’s fantastic.”
Increasingly, companies also seek to hire graduates from engineering programs that focus on practical applications versus engineering theory, largely because new engineers are expected to hit the ground running.
“Some of the bigger universities that are leaning into research and development, I’m not as focused on those students,” Ozios said. “I think they get caught into that high-level thinking and I don’t know how practical their thought process and problem solving is.”
Ozios specifically points to Grand Valley State University as a university that “has a finger on the pulse” of what companies in West Michigan are looking for in their engineers through its co-op program.
To keep its program grounded in the realities of the local business climate, GVSU visits each of the roughly 200 companies in its co-op network each semester to review the quality of its students’ performance and receive feedback, Plotkowski said.
Employers such as Shape Corp. believe that co-op programs are the best way to prepare students for their careers, Davidson said.
“If I had to give educators advice on what they could do, it would be to offer co-op programs and make that part of the curriculum,” Davidson said. “The more time students can be with us and have that critical thinking piece the better.”
Ferris State University also has built its engineering program on the basis of graduating students experienced in the practical side of the profession, said Larry Schult, dean of FSU’s College of Engineering Technology.
The university offers a variety of engineering technology programs including those focused on manufacturing, automotive, heavy equipment and other industries.
“We focus on lab work more than other programs do so our grads have always known exactly how the processes run and what kind of equipment and process development has to be done to create a product and to problem solve and understand tooling,” Schult said.
Ferris State recently received approval from the state to expand its manufacturing engineering technology and welding engineering technology facility and program. Schult estimates the project will increase capacity in the manufacturing and welding programs by 65 percent once the expansion is completed.
Moreover, the expansion will help Ferris State address an issue cited by the majority of college administrators interviewed for this report, namely that the demand for engineering graduates outpaces the available supply.
“The biggest thing we’re hearing is ‘more,’” said Plotkowski of GVSU. “The demand is far outpacing all our capacity. It’s short and sweet and not all that surprising.”