How can manufacturers work with colleges and universities to ensure that student engineers have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their careers?

Dick Straub, PhD, PE, senior associate dean with the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and professor, Biological Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently offered some answers to this question and others.

Straub is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the 78th Annual AEM Student Awards Luncheon on July 27 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The luncheon will be held in conjunction with the 2015 American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) Annual International Meeting (AIM).

Q. How can universities work with industry to be sure today’s students have the knowledge and skills to succeed?

A. I think there are many ways that we can work together to ensure that students have the skills and knowledge needed.

First, I would say if someone in industry has suggestions for improvement, they should not be shy in conveying that to those of us in academia. Here at Wisconsin, we have always made sure to include industry reps on our advisory committee, and often I feel that they are being too kind in their comments and not providing the constructive evaluation and criticism that we need to evaluate our product.

Second, I think it is important that industry finds ways to get in front of students and encourages them to think about and prepare for their lives as engineers. This can be done through ASABE or other such venues, through various types of campus visits (recruiting, course invitations, etc.) and by interaction with your student interns/coops.

Third, if you are not participating in some way with one or more academic units, I would encourage you to reach out and start a relationship that will offer opportunity to you, the students and the program.

Q. What technical skills are needed to be a successful engineering student today?

A. I believe an engineering student needs the fundamental math and science background to support the engineering sciences and technical areas. If a student is sound in math, physics, chemistry, basic engineering mechanics, thermal/fluids and materials, his/her understanding of the engineering technical areas is much more developed and will facilitate learning new skills needed in the future.

As engineering faculty, we can only train students specifically in the current areas of knowledge. Throughout their careers, they must be prepared and ready to learn technology that may not even be on the horizon, and sound fundamentals provide that basis.

Q. Beyond technical skills, what other attributes (soft skills) do you see in your top engineering students (such as communication ability, collaboration, project management, etc.)?

A. The success of an engineer depends fully as much on “soft skills” as on engineering skills. Nearly everything we do involves others and engineers need to be able to collaborate, communicate and convince if they are to be successful.

A good engineer needs to recognize that how one communicates and interacts is critical in making a project, team or company successful. Clearly, this needs engineering substance, but making projects successful relies heavily on being able to get others to buy-in, work together, or accept an idea.

I have always tried to make this point in advising students: people skills and understanding human nature are just as important as being sound technically. All else being equal, these skills can quickly move an engineer up the engineering and corporate ladder.

Q. Can you share an example or two that showcases how the University of Wisconsin is helping to connect engineering students with employment opportunities?

A. I think there are a number of examples. We offer several careers fair venues, where students can connect with industry opportunities.

Additionally, we often help industry host special student information sessions; we routinely invite industry speakers to our pre-professional ASABE meeting; and we encourage students to attend industry or professionally focused activities, such as ASABE section meetings, technical meetings such as the ASABE AIM or the Agricultural Equipment Technology Conference (AETC), and industry trade shows.

Personally, in a career management course that I teach, I bring in industry folks to speak to many of the issues we are discussing in these questions. I also often use my personal knowledge of the industry to connect students to them.

Q. What are 2-3 pieces of advice you would give to today’s graduating engineering students as they enter the workforce?

A. First, be prepared to work hard, to continue to learn and to be receptive to advice.

Second, learn your corporate culture and always try to work positively within it and to gently create change.

Third, be prepared and ready to accept and influence change – it is inevitable.

Last, have fun at whatever you do because life is short.