An Analysis of Industry and Education Needs in Engineering

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the project “Developing an Engineering Technology Workforce to Meet Employers’ Needs” to Tallahassee Community College in partnership with several industry and education partners in 2012. The goal of the Students in Engineering Technology (SET) project is to address employers’ needs by producing highly skilled and educated technicians who are prepared to enter and succeed in the field of Engineering Technology (ET).   

In order to gain insights about engineering industry needs and to develop strategies to address those needs, two surveys were conducted. The first survey asked engineering industry professionals (N=50) to rate the importance of knowledge, skills, and characteristics needed for success in the field as well as share their perceptions including which industry certifications are most important in the field. The second survey asked engineering educators (N=37) to share challenges they face as educators in the field. They were also asked their thoughts on how to better retain students and make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) more appealing, what hurdles students face in becoming interested in STEM coursework, and what students want from a STEM degree and coursework. Educators also ranked the importance of specific skills in the workplace and the emphasis placed on those skills in their programs. Finally, they were asked to provide their thoughts on how to better attract female students to the field.

The surveys revealed interesting results. Several factors considered by engineering educators to be very important skills in the workplace were considered not to be as emphasized in the program. Examples include:
  • Ability to communicate verbally and in writing - 97.3% of respondents say it is extremely important in the workplace but only 51.35% of educators say it is emphasized as very important in the program. On the industry survey, it received a 4.34 rating on a scale of 1-5 in terms of importance.
  • Ability to plan and manage time - 86.11% of educators say it is very important in the workplace but only 41.67% of respondents say it is emphasized as very important in the program.
  • Ability to work in a team - 80.56% of educators say it is very important in the workplace yet only 55.56% of respondents say it is emphasized as very important in the program.
  • Ability to apply knowledge in practical situations - 83.33% of educators say it is very important in the workplace but only 47.22% of respondents say it is emphasized as very important in the program. 
Engineering industry professionals rated several items very highly that were also rated very highly by engineering educators.
  • Strong work ethic
  • Verbal and written communication
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Computational and math skills
Hands-on experience is critical. Both surveys found that hands-on experience is key. The number one rated response by engineering educators for retaining high school and college students in engineering technology programs is field trips. Hands-on experience was rated extremely important in the industry survey, too, with a rating of 4.42 on a 1-5 scale with regard to career success.

With regard to item 1, engineering educators were asked to indicate the importance in the workplace and the emphasis placed on it in the program for a variety of skills and competencies. An excerpt of the more revealing results appears in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Excerpt from NSF Engineering Educator Survey Results - Question 9
Preliminary data obtained from the Florida TRADE Advanced Manufacturing program support the concept of having more hands-on learning opportunities. Approximately 90 percent of students enrolled in the CNC Machine Operator program successfully completed the courses. Those who did not complete the courses received unsuccessful grades in courses with more lecture-based versus hands-on lab components. In the degree program, the Introduction to Electronics course (more lecture-based) had an average GPA of 3.1 compared to the Motors and Controls course (greater lab content) which had an average GPA of 4.0; both courses are taught by the same instructor.
To illustrate the needs, in the engineering educators survey, respondents were asked, “What are the challenges of an engineering technology instructor (high school and college) to relate concepts to real-world applications, and to incorporate practical contextual teaching for greater student understanding and success?”

The results are ranked in Figure 2 in order of responses:
Figure 2: Excerpt from NSF Engineering Educator Survey Results – Question 3
Many ideas were shared in an open-ended question to about how to better attract female students to the field. Examples of responses include using current female students and female alumni to reach out to potential female students, providing additional mentoring and STEM research opportunities to new and potential students, featuring female engineers in promotional materials, and engaging girls in middle school including with industry professionals and with summer work opportunities. 

A great deal of beneficial information was gathered from the engineering educators survey and the
industry professionals survey including by comparing results. Survey outcomes will be used to inform the development of an instructor guide to help engineering educators better attract and serve students in the engineering technology program and to prepare them for career success. It will also help program administrators make adjustments to their efforts to attract and retain students to the program.

Engineering educators should use this information to help them better serve students. Bruce Batton, project director, says that the key to success is to move more to contextual learning including having discussions in a lab environment instead of in a classroom environment. “We have good content and excellent partnership with industry, but more of that discussion needs to be standing beside the equipment. Then it feels a lot less like theory and more like application.”

Both surveys were conducted and analyzed by NSF evaluator Gabrielle K. Gabrielli, Ph.D. of Gabrielle Consulting, Inc. Complete survey results can be requested from the evaluator via email at gabrielle@gabrielleconsulting.com.