The Iowa State College of Engineering’s career services team is helping students gain a better understanding of the growing expectations employers have for engineering students.
As the number of employers looking to hire engineers continues to rise, so do expectations of graduates, causing a shift in skills demand. This shift, which became evident just a few years ago and which will continue to increase as Boomers leave the workforce, has created a significant need for a transformation of curriculum.
At the fall Engineering Career Fair held in September, representatives from 241 companies (up 14 percent from 2010) flooded onto campus. Packed into the Hilton Coliseum and the Scheman Building, these representatives met with more than 4,000 students.
This large number of companies resulted in an even more impressive number of interviews. A total of 1,262 interviews were held during the three days following the career fair, an increase of 16.6 percent over 2010.
Something that surprised the college and Roger Bentley, manager of student and alumni professional development for Engineering Career Services, was that companies sent 30 percent more recruiters to this year’s fair. A large number were alumni, proudly returning not only to represent their companies but also their alma mater.
Bentley feels this growing percentage reflects positively on the college. “For companies to trust in our alumni’s professionalism and have them represent their company in such an important process really shows the depth and quality of the individuals who graduate from our programs,” says Bentley.
Having engineers involved in the recruiting process also provides proof of the industry’s changing needs in employees, according to Larry Hanneman, director of Engineering Career Services. Over the past four years, Hanneman has been involved in ongoing recruiting trends research with colleague Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. Together, they presented their findings as distinguished lecturers at the 2011 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference held in June.
Hanneman and Gardner conducted their research through several media, using Iowa State’s Career Management System (CMS) and surveys of corporations across the nation as their primary resources for data.
One important function of the CMS is that it provides a system for users to search job listings based on keywords. Using the search engine, Hanneman and Gardner discovered two new key abilities within job listings that had infrequently appeared in the past: project management and professional network building. With this information in hand, the duo conducted surveys at more than 900 companies to confirm their findings. The results were astounding.
In the last five years, employers’ expectations of graduates have changed dramatically. What used to be the college’s program outcomes for graduates, or the skills and abilities students should have acquired by graduation, are now expectations employers have for interns. Similarly, rough ideas of engineering objectives, or the level that graduates should be at five years after graduation, are now expectations for new graduates.
These shifting expectations of graduates have been attributed to the aging of “baby boomers.” With such a large number of people closing in on retirement in the coming years, particularly in middle managers and practicing engineers, companies will have to begin promoting people and finding replacements for retirees at a pace quicker than usual.
More importantly, all the connections made and networking these employees have done over the years will be lost
“I like to describe it as a multi-dimensional spider web,” explains Hanneman. “Each connection in the web is a person. As a person leaves, or retires, those connections break and the entire system could crumble.” The presence of professional network building as a competency in available jobs is a direct result of these crumbling connections.
After this year’s conference, ASEE members were busting with newly acquired knowledge from presentations similar to Hanneman and Gardner’s, including Tom Brumm, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering (ABE), Engineering director of assessment and professor-in-charge of Engineering Online Learning. “Each presentation gave me a new idea that I could use in my teaching or our academic programs,” says Brumm.
ABE has already implemented changes to its curriculum based on new employer expectations by introducing a new project management course for sophomores in the department. “We used to deal with project management at the senior level,” explains Brumm. “After getting feedback from the industry and students, we decided we have to introduce project management a lot earlier.”
This new ABE course is modeled after the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s sophomore-level design course.
Hanneman’s research has also contributed to growth in the Engineering Career Fair, as more faculty members in charge of the introductory engineering courses require students to attend the Engineering Career Fair in conjunction with an assignment. Students are asked to research a handful of companies, look at the job descriptions the companies have posted through the CMS, and determine any skills and competencies necessary for the jobs. Students are then asked to go to the Engineering Career Fair with a résumé prepared and converse with companies to practice communicating and networking.
Within the planning stages of the Engineering Career Fair, Bentley has designed a system in which students can get experience in project management. This year, he had a student executive planning team that consisted of two co-chairs and three sub-committee members. Each member worked on various tasks to help plan and manage the event with the help of 70 student ambassadors.
“Our team of ambassadors and executive student leaders get hands-on experience in executing a project that has over 400 individual tasks within it,” Bentley says. “It’s really exciting for me to help educate and coach these students on project management skills so they can gain experience in one of the top desired competencies.”
Hanneman echoes Bentley’s sentiment that it is crucial for students to get practical experience so they are prepared for the industry’s future. “Building these types of experiences isn’t easily done in the classroom or lab,” he says. “Students have to be put into an environment where they are totally immersed to learn and practice these skills.” One of the best ways to do that is through internships or co-ops, he adds.
Companies recruiting at the College of Engineering are well aware of the importance internships and co-ops provide, with more than half of the interviews done at the college this year being for these types of positions. “Employers are now investing time and money to send people here to meet underclassmen and offer them the skills they need,” he says. “They also understand the value of students’ experiences in a professional workplace as a crucial part of their education.”
Hanneman notes that in the coming months and even years, the shift in employer’s expectations will continue to influence academic initiatives, and that’s why he was eager to present his findings at the ASEE conference. He wasn’t the only Iowa State engineer sharing knowledge, however. The college was well represented at the event, with several others making important contributions, including:
- Diane T. Rover (ECpE), Frankie Santos Laanan (ELPS), and Dimitra Lynette Jackson (ELPS) – Engineering Transfer Students: Characteristics, Experiences, and Student Outcomes
- Julie A. Rursch (ECpE) and Douglas W. Jacobson (ECpE) – A.A.S. + 2 = Iowa State University Bachelors of Engineering Technology: An Iowa Grassroots Success Story of Developing a 2+2 for “Career Track” Student
- Steven K. Mickelson (ABE) and Marcia R. Laugerman (ABE) – Characteristics of Community College Transfer Students that Successfully Matriculate and Graduate in Engineering
- David G. Rethwisch, Frankie Santos Laanan (ELPS) and Soko S. Starobin (ELPS) – A Longitudinal Evaluation of Project Lead The Way in the State of Iowa
- Chris R. Rehmann (CCE E), Diane T. Rover (ECpE), Mark Laingen (ABE), Steven K. Mickelson (ABE), and Tom Brumm (ABE) – Introducing Systems Thinking to the Engineer of 2020
- Diane T. Rover (ECpE) – Laboratory Development in ECE moderator
The College of Engineering and its dedicated educators like these ASEE participants will hold the key to students’ success in the future. As the baby boomers move out and new employees are recruited to fill vacant positions, the college and university will need to prepare students for that shift by continuing to reform curriculum and educational approaches to prepare students with the talents to succeed.
“As I look at other career management systems, I see them implement these newly desired competencies at the junior and senior level—even at that point it is too late,” Hanneman explains. “At Iowa State, we recognize the importance of seeing future expectations and preparing our students early in their college careers.” Additionally, events such as the Engineering Career Fair and the ASEE Annual Conference will be influential catalysts for these transformations.