Industrial Education Ch. 5: Universities

Electrical Engineering lab in Germany – Courtesy of study-domain.com

This series of posts discusses the current state of industrial education in the US and around the world. I will cover topics covering elementary through high school education (including the STEM programs), vocational/technical schools and colleges, independent for profit courses both online and in-person, and some of the resources that can be found on the internet.

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I had a somewhat unusual path to college. After 8 years in the US Air Force, learning a lot of hands-on electronics and life skills, and even teaching for a couple of years, I enrolled in the Electrical and Computer Engineering program at the University of Tennessee. The first couple of years I spent taking the same courses that all engineers have to take; lots of math (Calculus I, II, III, Differential Equations and Matrix Math), science (Chemistry I and II, Statics, Dynamics, Physics I and II, Thermodynamics) and various humanities courses. We also took oddball engineering related classes like Intro to Engineering, Engineering Ethics, and later on Engineering Economics. Drafting was part of it, and we even got an intro to CAD, though personal computers were in their infancy. We often used the big central VAX computer for other programming tasks, but there were some IBM computers running DOS, 3.3 if I remember correctly.

All Electrical Engineering students took a “Circuits” class, the first EE specific class you had to take. Since I had already studied electronics in the Air Force, it was a pretty easy class for me, but this was where fully half of the people who started in Electrical Engineering failed out. Professors were notoriously hard on students, ensuring that they had what it took to be an engineer. There was a joke that called the Engineering programs “pre-business”, because a lot of students would transfer to the business school if they couldn’t make it through the technical and math classes.

Among other things, we had to design and build a 24v power supply. This involved a transformer, rectifier, amplifier and voltage regulation, and after testing it on a “bread board”, you had to solder it into a usable form. There was no class or instructional materials on soldering, and no suggestions from the professor on where to learn. I suppose there was a book on it somewhere in the library, but you couldn’t just look it up on the internet like now. I suppose it was another test for students. Again, since I had lots of experience in soldering and indeed had taught it, I taught a lot of my classmates how to solder. I was not the only ex-military or older student there, so I imagine this was common.

In my Senior year, I took a Microprocessor class. I had actually concentrated on Control Systems, and this was one of the classes you could take in that direction. One of the projects we had was to partner with another student and program it to drive a speaker that would play a song. After passing the first part of the project by playing a song of your choice for the professor, he would give you a piece of sheet music, and you had 1/2 hour to enter the notes into the microprocessor and play it for him. Initially a lot of students complained about this, saying they didn’t know how to read music and couldn’t possibly complete the assignment in that amount of time. The professor said “Music is just like any language, and you will have to use lots of programming languages in your career and learn them quickly”. Of course there were no excuses. Now I have played music since I was a kid, though I wasn’t exactly a “sight reader”, so I didn’t have a great deal of trouble completing the assignment.

I do remember studying hard and learning a lot of different things, but after graduating and getting into the real workplace I realized just what I didn’t know. Though I had learned a lot of math and good study habits, I didn’t know how to use and apply most of the components that were used in industry. Fortunately my first two jobs involved training schools put on by manufacturers like Allen-Bradley, Omron and Pepperl+Fuchs, so I picked up a lot there. There was a PLC class at the University, but I had not heard good things about it, so I didn’t take it. In the long run, it didn’t matter.

I have hired various university graduates and worked with even more of them, so I have been able to track whatever differences there might be from the program I went through. There is certainly a bit more hands on in most universities, and of course the internet allows students to quickly get information on almost any subject. But a complaint I constantly hear from experienced maintenance technicians in plants is that “that engineer didn’t know anything about real industry”. Well, when an engineer graduates at 22 years old and enters the workforce, of course they don’t have much if any work experience. Unless they worked with their hands before or during college, they probably can’t do much with them. But some of the things you get in college are more intangible; you learn how to learn.

When it comes to manufacturing companies hiring, human resources generally has a set of prerequisites for an entry level manufacturing engineering position. The pay will not be all that great, and they will probably be working under an experienced engineer for a while. But one requirement will always be the four year degree itself; when it comes to entry level positions for people from other countries it will require a Masters degree and the pay will be the same as for the American kid with a Bachelors. The grades of the student will matter, and possibly whatever other experience they might have. Companies often receive hundreds or more of applications and resumes for any specific job, and they need some criteria to put some on the short list.

In Chris Guillebeau’s excellent book The Art of Non-Conformity, he makes the point that one of the purposes of a university is to keep you there for four years or more and extract the appropriate amount of money from the student. Unfortunately since I was in school the cost of college has skyrocketed, and students and their parents often go into massive amounts of debt to be able to check that interviewer’s boxes.

As I mentioned in my previous Industrial Education post, there are less expensive and more hands-on options available. Some students opt to take the basic classes at a junior or community college before transferring to the University. But the requirement for a four or more year degree from an accredited university program still remains for engineering positions.

So what do I actually use from my Electrical Engineering degree? Almost nothing. The two most important things I learned were how to document and design, and how to solve problems. I already had most of the basic circuit knowledge, I rarely use the math and science, and 99% of the technology I learned is obsolete now. I learned most of the actual skills I have by doing and reading other peoples stuff, and I get a lot of my newest product knowledge from vendors, associates and online. I’ve picked up enough after college to be able to write a couple of books, and now teach what I know. Even my writing and teaching skills were not something I got from the university.

So in summary, what I have been discovering while writing these articles on Industrial Education and how well we prepare students for the industrial workplace, is that we fall very short in most areas. Much of education is driven by profit, and there are a lot of layers of bureaucracy that have nothing to do with learning the subject material. At the same time, we use exciting buzzwords like STEM and IIOT, without actually improving the system itself. Most of the knowledge an engineer needs is available cheap or free somewhere, but there is no clear path on where one would start. And without that important… expensive… piece of paper there is almost no chance of a promising engineering career.

I will be writing more on this subject at a later time, but this was as far as I originally intended to go on this topic. What do you think? How can we improve the readiness of people entering the technical workplace?

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Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.

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