Midterm Exam: C-

Although it's not uncommon for engineering students to spend more time hitting the books than their peers in liberal arts or the college of business, a surprising number of professional M/E/P engineers feel many engineering programs might be better off borrowing some of the curricula of their academic brethren.

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor March 1, 2003

Although it’s not uncommon for engineering students to spend more time hitting the books than their peers in liberal arts or the college of business, a surprising number of professional M/E/P engineers feel many engineering programs might be better off borrowing some of the curricula of their academic brethren. And even then, many argue engineering programs could still do a better job preparing aspiring professionals for a career in the industry.

“Most programs tend to be too general,” notes Robert B. Hickey, P.E., president and CEO of van Zelm Haywood & Shadford, West Hartford, Conn. “Students come out of school with M/E fundamentals, but they really need two years on the job before they become cost-effective.”

When asked, those involved in hiring new engineers point out there are some programs they regularly turn to—Penn State, Drexel, Purdue, Washington University, Kansas State, the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Nebraska and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to name a few. These schools offer more in-depth curricula and degreed architectural engineering programs. Unfortunately, the competition for graduates of these specific programs is fierce (see list of the U.S. News and World Report’s top 20 engineering programs on p. 54).

Experience counts

So what distinguishes a successful program from the rest of the pack? For most engineers, the answer is simple: internships.

“I really think that work experience in our particular line of business is more valuable than just about anything,” says Bill Porter, P.E., a regional manager for the Virginia Beach office of Hayes Seay Mattern & Mattern (HSM&M).

Besides experience, internships can give students and firms a real leg up if they are eventually hired by the same firm.

“After spending one or two co-op periods with us, students can be much more productive the day they start because of their familiarity with our work,” claims Eli Sherman, P.E., president of Vanderweil Engineers’ Princeton, N.J. office.

Ken Lovorn, P.E., president of Lovorn Engineering, Pittsburgh, agrees that internships make a big difference, but notes firms must make good use of these opportunities. “All too often, employers use these students as gofers and clerks rather than giving them a chance to actually engineer something. For the benefit of both, the employer must spend some time providing direction and developing an opportunity to learn, rather than just filling up a semester with learning to use the copier,” says the engineer.

Some universities, such as Kansas State and Penn State, are helping their students prepare for such opportunities by making specialized laboratories available for hands-on experimentation with different types of mechanical and electrical equipment. Furthermore, according to Philip S. Leader, P.E., vice president and director of mechanical engineering for Albert Kahn Associates, Detroit, these programs also offer students the chance to design actual M/E systems for renovation projects on campus.

Take Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., for example. According to HSM&M’s Porter, students there recently helped design a direct digital control system, providing input both for the design and commissioning. The students further performed comprehensive testing of the system once it was up and running.

Occasionally, some engineering programs will actually involve the professional community, notes Thomas J. O’Neill, president and CEO of Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York.

Virginia Tech is one such program. For example, the institution will occasionally organize focus groups where students, faculty and consulting engineers get together to talk about education and the profession.

“But these programs are very few, and I would like to see more of them,” laments O’Neill.

Get involved

This sentiment crystallizes much of the general feeling many engineers have about the state of engineering education.

“Educational programs must involve professionals in the classroom and generate aggressive intern opportunities and requirements,” says Roger J. Wozny, president of The Schemmer Associates, Omaha, Neb.

At the same time, he adds, engineers must sometimes take the initiative. “Usually this takes the form of working in advisory committees,” he says.

Specifically, Wozny encourages engineers to actively engage in the following university practices: program and curriculum review; the establishment of outcome objectives; student internships; hiring faculty for consulting assignments; presenting real-life class and project tours; giving timely feedback on contemporary trends; and sharing candid data on the progress of a graduate’s work abilities.

The result of such interaction, he believes, should help turn out graduates who work effectively on a team of building professionals and have an understanding and appreciation for professional practice. “This should include the importance of ethics and integrity in the building industry and an ability to become licensed,” he adds.

A lack of non-engineering skills

This last notion touches on another major concern voiced by those hiring engineers: Graduates still lack certain non-engineering skills essential to the profession.

“Because there is now a heavier reliance on M/E systems—which have become much more complex—there are more opportunities for engineers to take the lead on projects,” notes Raj Gupta, P.E., president of Environmental Systems Design, Chicago. “Unfortunately, many of the schools don’t address leadership and communication skills very well.”

O’Neill has also observed weak verbal and written communication abilities among recent hires, as well as a lack of political savvy. “Many students lack a sophisticated understanding of the interdependence of engineering and public policy. I’d like to see more courses combining communications skills enhancement and interaction with the media.”

Although it’s not uncommon for undergraduate engineering programs to require 140 credit hours—compared to 120 hours generally necessitated by liberal arts degrees—it still seems that there isn’t enough time allotted for non-technical courses such as writing, public speaking and public policy. Gupta further points out that courses covering ethics, social responsibility and environment are often not a required part of curriculums.

Further, in a real-world business climate, courses in business, accounting, finance and management are necessary. “But these are often left up to engineering firms to provide such training,” says Mike Biscotte, P.E., with HSM&M’s Roanoke, Va. office.

Kahn’s Leader also notes that traditional curriculums place a major focus on theory and higher level mathematics. These skills, in his opinion, have little value in the A/E business and breed research scientists and graduate students more than professional engineers.

Vanderweil’s Lisa DeVillis sees this as a major stumbling block. “Undergraduate engineering students are, in my opinion, best prepared when taught directly and primarily by professors dedicated to teaching and not research,” she declares.

According to DeVillis’ Vanderweil colleague Julie Paquette, this brings into question the fundamental mission of engineering programs. Paquette, a designer with Vanderweil’s Boston office, says engineers simply don’t have the training and development required to take on community leadership opportunities or be involved in shaping policy, setting standards or redefining codes.

To put things in perspective, she draws a comparison between the professions of law and engineering. Not only do lawyers outnumber engineers by 11 to one in the United States, they are, by far, much more involved in the public realm.

“In this age of rapid technological change, wouldn’t training in engineering—problem solving, analytical thinking and technical know-how—be far better preparation for leadership than studying dated laws and court cases?” Paquette asks. “Universities, along with engineering firms and organizations, must do a better job of training leaders . Law schools have somehow infused a sense of responsibility and empowerment into their graduates. Engineering programs should do the same.”

Equally important, says John Patelski, president of A. Epstein and Sons International, Inc., Chicago, is that such training makes for a better engineer.

“Skills in areas such as public speaking, leadership training, psychology, history, etc., will not only make for a better-rounded student and later, a better-rounded employee, but also will provide them with skills that will enhance their performance as engineers,” he says.

To be fair, O’Neill points out that some programs are addressing these broader needs, specifically Dartmouth, Purdue and Michigan, which have introduced joint programs between their engineering and business schools.

However, in offering a broader curriculum, the question arises as to whether such initiatives weaken fundamental engineering skills.

Lovorn believes this to be the case, despite the general avoidance of teaching too many skills for fear of what he believes is “appearing to be like a trade school.”

“There has to be a compromise that will allow instruction in useful problem-solving methodology and business acumen, while maintaining the structure of a traditional education, for the general benefit of the industry,” he says.

He suggests that perhaps a fifth year should be added to degree programs so that the design and business aspects of the profession can be integrated with theory.

The universities themselves recognize some of these issues and are attempting to address them. “We agree with the need to have students understand the broader socio-economic/political issues that are an essential part of all engineering practices. We are also working on ways to help students to understand these issues,” says James Melsa, a professor at Iowa State University.

He notes the school is also making an effort to bring in active practitioners into the classroom, as well as make sure most of the faculty have practical experience. However, he is quick to point out that it’s not the university’s job to produce perfect candidates. “Universities can never hope to prepare a student to be able to step into any engineering job and be fully prepared to function on day one. This would require that our programs be too specific and too costly,” says Melsa. “We find that most engineering firms want education, not training. If a person is truly going to be effective through a 30- to 40-year career and several different jobs, they must learn fundamentals. Engineering clearly demands a career of life-long learning. We hope to prepare students with both the motivation and ability to engage in such life-long learning.” (Visit www.eng.iastate.edu/blueprint/ and read “Blueprint for Excellence” for more information about Iowa State’s approach to these issues).

As far as the notion of research vs. practical experience, Penn State’s Richard Behr says practitioners must keep in mind the missions of the individual institutions. “Penn State is a strongly research-oriented institution, so current faculty members who aspire to being tenured here must show proficiency in teaching, research, scholarship and service to the institution and to the profession,” says Behr, head of the school’s architectural engineering program.

To Lovorn’s point, Behr notes Penn State’s program is a five-year course of study, and students typically complete at least two or three summer internships before they graduate. “More than 130 companies travel to Penn State to recruit our 100 B.A.E. graduates each year for permanent employment, as well as our second-, third- and fourth-year architectural engineering students for summer internships. The demand for our graduates is very strong, which is probably the clearest indicator that the employers of our PSU architectural engineering students are highly satisfied with what we are putting out,” he says.

Behr adds, however, that the school is not complacent, and it regularly obtains formal feedback from recruiting firms to make appropriate improvements within the constraints of its resources.

Mission possible

While there might not be a consensus as to how universities can or should prepare students for a career in building system design, the mission is well stated by Schemmer’s Wozny: Turn out graduates who work effectively on a team of building professionals, and have an understanding and appreciation for professional practice. This should include the importance of ethics and integrity in the building industry and an ability to become licensed.

An Electrical and Fire Perspective: Not Enough Juice in Most Programs

At some point in their career, nearly everyone has looked back at their education and said, “I wish they had taught me that in college.”

So says Ken Lovorn, president, Lovorn Engineering, Pittsburgh. In his opinion, many schools do provide good, hands-on training—some that even allow graduates to immediately start working in an architectural or engineering office—but they fall behind on the electrical side.

“With much of the power engineering courses removed from the curriculum, students are only capable of designing residential-type power distribution. The few colleges and universities that do offer power options have very limited curricula that do not cover many of the varied issues encountered in the power professional’s daily activities,” he says.

Similarly, those on the fire protection side of the business also see limited options.

“Where some colleges and universities fall short is in not offering fire protection as a degreed program,” says David Czajika, vice president of human resources for The RJA Group, Chicago. “Too often, fire protection is lumped in with the ‘other’ category, and this does not serve as an engine of growth for attracting prospective fire-protection engineers.”

One promising trend, he notes, is that some universities, such as the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, are allowing their students to earn remote learning credits from accredited fire engineering programs, such as the University of Maryland and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

From his perspective, Czajika posits that the most important component is promoting public awareness of fire protection engineering and its value in the design process and built environment.

U.S. News Top 20 Engineering Schools

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Stanford University (Calif.)

University of California—Berkeley

Georgia Institute of Technology

University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign

University of Michigan—Ann Arbor

California Institute of Technology

Cornell University (N.Y.)

University of Southern California

Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.)

University of Texas—Austin

Purdue University—West Lafayette (Ind.)

Texas A&M University—College Station

University of California—San Diego

Penn State University—University Park

University of Wisconsin—Madison

Harvard University (Mass.)

Princeton University (N.J.)

University of Maryland—College Park

Northwestern University (Ill.)

For a full report and details of the ranking, visit

Snagging the Grads

While improving educational engineering programs is certain to have a positive effect on the quality of engineering graduates, a more fundamental industry concern is convincing these students to design building systems in the first place.

“Aspects of engineering associated with design and construction, are, at times, not seen as being as glamorous or lucrative as other engineering-related careers,” acknowledges John Patelski, president of A. Epstein and Sons International, Inc., Chicago. “This trend has had a negative impact on the supply and demand ratio of engineers available today for our field.”

ESD’s Raj Gupta concurs. “People coming out of college are not dying to get into our industry. We need to demonstrate that there’s a career path for these people.”

Offering attractive starting salaries is certainly one method. However, it gives rise to yet another problem: salary compression. “While the new graduate may get to enjoy this shiny new, deluxe salary for the first few years, five years from now those same engineers may find themselves training a newly graduated engineer making virtually the same salary that he or she has spent five years achieving,” says Ken Lovorn, president of Lovorn Engineering.

The reality, he explains, is that total salaries for engineering on projects cannot rise due to the limit on engineering fee levels caused by competitive pressures. Unfortunately, this is a Catch-22 firms have had to live with.

M/E Firm and its Local Community College Team Up for Continuing Ed

Recognizing the need for more educational engineering opportunities, one firm has taken matters into its own hands, partnering with a local community college to offer engineering courses.

In a fairly magnanimous gesture, West Hartford, Conn.-based van Zelm Haywood & Shadford, in conjunction with its hometown Capital Community College, offers engineering courses to not only its own engineers for continuing education credits/technical knowledge enhancement, but to students and engineers from other firms as well. For example, one of the individuals enrolled in an HVAC system design course last semester was a professional electrical engineer from a competing firm.

“We are trying to solve our own problems, but it’s also a step in the right direction to solve the industry’s problems of not having enough trained people to hire,” comments Robert B. Hickey, the firm’s president and CEO.

While this new program is only in its second semester, Hickey notes that there has been a reasonable amount of interest and excitement.

“We’re really investing in the industry, so we hope it will evolve into a full associate program,” he says.