Q&A: 4 Education Leaders Explore How Higher Education is Fueling Manufacturing

Posted by IMEC on Oct 13, 2021 9:21:00 AM

The path to manufacturing is widening. While disruptive technology like robotics, AI and data analytics is shaping the factory of the future, higher education is forging a path with education-industry partnerships, certificates and credentials, statewide networks, and an eager desire to solve problems with interdisciplinary teams. 

We mark IMEC’s quarter century anniversary by exploring how higher education is fueling manufacturing in the great State of Illinois. Four education leaders shared their thoughts in a roundtable setting. We are privileged to have each serve on IMEC’s board of directors, sharing their passion for student success and honoring our mission of helping Illinois manufacturers become global competitors. They were insightful, positive and excited about future possibilities. 

Meet Lynn Andersen Lindberg, Director, Business Innovation and Research Innovation and Economic Development, Southern Illinois University Carbondale; Jerry Blazey, Interim Vice President for Research and Innovative Partnerships, Northern Illinois University; Larry Danziger, PharmD, Executive Director (Center for Advanced Design, Research and Exploration), Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, Professor of Pharmacy, College of Pharmacy, University of Illinois at Chicago; and Erin Kastberg, Vice President for Legal Affairs, General Counsel at Bradley University.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

What is higher education doing in 2021 that they weren't doing before?

LARRY: From my perspective up here at UIC, it’s kind of like “Back to the Future.” We’re rethinking straight class work to having more externships, more hands-on experience. I don’t know if vocational training is the right word to use, but the idea is that manufacturers have specific needs and we can’t just have the kids sitting in the classroom. We have to match up what the manufacturers need and how we get the students to learn. I see us going to more partnerships with industry.

JERRY: Partnerships with industries. I think they’re almost the dominant thing right now in addition to the classroom activities. All the students are taking internships, co-ops, senior design projects with industry. I think it’s a much tighter coupling than it was in the past. It’s less of an academic exercise and more of a hands-on training experience for the students.

ERIN: Some of the interdisciplinary studies we’re doing where it’s not just training where you have a degree in English or a degree in one particular subject. It’s about trying to create well-rounded employees and contributing members of society. I think of the globalization of things (with) some of the study abroad opportunities – to be able to expose students to how things are done in different countries. It’s some of those educational experiences that I think higher education can provide that are really relevant to whatever you go into, but I think they can be particularly relevant (in manufacturing). 

LYNN: We’ve also been during more international – not necessarily study abroad – but taking faculty and subject matter experts, staff, sometimes grad students. We’re focused on the Caribbean right now so we’ve been going to Cuba as well as Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and several other islands so that there is an exchange that is very comfortable and it’s not just focused on “we’re coming down to learn everything you’re doing and we’re not going to share.” It’s a two-way exchange. 

Also, looking at specific educational courses being designed to meet what industry needs, not what we think industry needs. That’s really important and it’s definitely changed in the last five to ten years. But it’s also brought up all workforce credentials, looking at digital credentials, certificates, other types of educational competency that ten years ago we weren’t looking at and now we’re getting a lot of requests.

Can you go a little deeper on credentials and other trends you see?

LYNN: Our workforce development board that serves the county where SIU is plus the immediate countries around it is very active working with manufacturers so they are a key part. They do have funding to assist with apprenticeships, internships and training for workers who have been displaced … now we actually have somebody on the Carbondale campus as well as the Edwardsville campus who does focus on this. So we are now being a lot more proactive than perhaps we were even a few years ago.

LARRY: More certificate programs. That’s become an area where we’re doing more because we’re looking at it to help people but also revenues. It’s another approach besides getting a degree. The certificate programs that we have are for adult learners, people who have already graduated and they need to get a new course of training so we create programs that we think industry needs so they can work wherever they want to go. We have programs in scientific research, data analysis, computer science. Credentialing is not something I’m aware of at UIC, but certificate programs have been around for a long time. 

JERRY: The college of engineering is starting to collaborate more closely with the college of business because a lot of the issues facing small businesses are not just the technical aspects of manufacturing, but operational workflow and branding and marketing and all those things. I think that is a bit of a change, at least it is for us at NIU, so much so that it even reaches out to our college of performing and visual arts, believe it or not, because they think more about design than the other two colleges so that is a trend. 

ERIN: One of the things we talk about at Bradley is this concept of convergence. We built the building of Business and Engineering Convergence Center. It’s called the BEC. It’s this huge building, and it has the the Foster College of Business on one side and the Caterpillar College of Engineering on the other side. The whole idea is that by having this one building, it’s fostering this whole concept of convergence. Students who are engineering majors could really benefit by working with the business students on proof of concept things, marketing, other kinds of accounting, and all the things that would be helpful to an engineer. And from a business student’s perspective, learning about developing technologies … that could benefit them and make them more marketable as business students. 

Are more young people going into manufacturing?

LARRY: I’m not seeing it yet per se, but I can tell you that higher education literature is talking about just this. The price of an education is very high so there’s a rethinking of: “OK, If I’m going to go to school and I’m going to pay that kind of money, how am I going to pay off my loan and maybe that’s not the route to go.” 

Just recently, there’s been some studies coming out . . . the percentage of men vs. women going into higher education now is changing. There’s a greater percentage of women than men. My assumption is they are getting into the manufacturing or some other world where they don’t need a college degree. 

ERIN: I think a lot of the skills that you would find within manufacturing are present in a lot of courses or pursuits that individuals would have within higher ed. You think about robotics … 3D printing is this really big deal right now, ergonomics; there’s been a shortage of welders. Some of these things we do in our hands-on lab courses and things along that line are very transferable and applicable … I think those skills are very transferable to a manufacturing environment.

How is the perception of manufacturing changing?

LARRY: We need to do some surveys. It’s what IMEC is good at. We need to gather more information on that. Manufacturing was big and then everything went overseas. The question is what do we have here. High tech manufacturing is what we are saying we’re going to see in the U.S. and that’s where we want to train people. I don’t know how much they are hearing about it from us, and that’s why I’d need more information.

JERRY: First, on your question about more young people going into manufacturing. That’s really a hard question to answer because we don’t think of it that way. We think: who’s going into electrical engineering, who’s going into mechanical engineering, who’s going into civil engineering – and all those feed into manufacturing. But it’s really hard for us to come up with all those post-graduation stories. 

… what students are learning now is changing drastically. They’re learning about things like robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, AI, machine learning and that’s going into manufacturing. So I think the image of manufacturing is changing from someone standing next to a two-ton drop forge that’s making things in a very loud noisy environment to someone sitting down thinking about how to use AI to improve manufacturing processes. 

LARRY: … we did a tour of that German manufacturing company out in the suburbs here in Chicago. It’s just like Jerry said: they had all this equipment, but the workers were manning computers that were up in the control room. 

Should there be a manufacturing degree?

LARRY: Programs like that could be more limiting than broadly of value. We train our people, but then we place them in externships with manufacturers or with companies and then they learn which areas they like versus training them (to work in a particular type of manufacturing). 

JERRY: I’ve gone online and there are a few, but they’re not that common.

ERIN: If you go on the website (for the Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering and Technology program called IMET) … there are majors in industrial engineering and concentrations in engineering management, supply chain analytics, lean manufacturing. In addition, there are graduate programs too in data science, industrial engineering and manufacturing engineering as well.

Are there any other programs your universities are doing with industry you would like to talk about?

LARRY: We have something we call the Innovation Center. There, we partner with industry on questions that they need help solving. Students from our various colleges ... get put on a team to help solve that problem. The industry is getting help from us and students are getting exposure on how to work with industry. We’ve even had companies like Baxter come to us. I worked on one project to help them create the operating room of the future. 

JERRY: We call it senior project. It’s a very similar thing. It’s very much focused on small to medium manufacturers because they’re looking for economical ways to solve problems.

LARRY: Universities help with manufacturing because we encourage our faculty to invent new things and create businesses. That’s actually something we’ve been working with IMEC on. For ours, its biomedical processes. For example, in the Innovation Center, there was a group of faculty. They figured out how to do 3D printing and create specific size bones for orthopedic surgeries for people and create the exact size bone a person would need: child, a teenager and an adult. This Innovation Center worked with them and created the prosthesis – and would ultimately lead to a company.

What are some ways IMEC could help change the game for increasing student interest and encouraging young people to stay in Illinois's manufacturing workforce?

LARRY: IMEC or somebody is going to have to go back and talk to students earlier in their educational cycle about opportunities. When I was in high school, we had vocational training so that was one of the tracks people could go in. You could learn manufacturing or auto mechanics. We need to go back to that so we tell people what opportunities are earlier so they can think about it.  

ERIN: I think enhancing or demonstrating the diversity which can exist within manufacturing. I think there is still an assumption that manufacturing … is a bunch of old white men. Being able to demonstrate that manufacturing embraces and welcomes diversity. And that within manufacturing, there are so many different opportunities. It’s not just, for example, working on an assembly line, but it can be engineering the neatest, coolest robot. I think people think that manufacturing is just working in a factory but there are so many facets to that so it’s breaking down some of those stereotypes or assumptions. I think that’s something IMEC could do a really good job of because of the diversity of its membership and because they have contacts and connections with a lot of manufacturers. 

LARRY: At our university, we have counselors that go into high schools to help people think of career choices. Maybe IMEC needs high school career counselors and part of IMEC’s programming could be to figure out some program that explains to high school students what their opportunities are across the board in manufacturing.

What are your hopes for the future of higher education and manufacturing?

LARRY: The hope is that we’re going to continue doing what everybody’s doing in the state. At the University of Illinois, we created what they call DPI and there’s the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) that’s been created so there’s a lot of activity going on with the state and universities in the state realizing … innovation and bringing that over to industry.  

JERRY: A tighter coupling between curriculum and the manufacturing sector in addition to what Larry said. I think IIN and DPI are vehicles for that.

ERIN: I think better collaboration or cross-functional communications network. One of the things higher education does well but maybe doesn’t translate as well into a manufacturing career, we tend to pigeon-hole people into certain areas. We could do a better job of opening ideas or opportunities up to students … it’s giving students opportunities to explore and learn different skill sets and how they can be applied in the real world.

LYNN: Focusing on the intersection of industry needs and higher education research and expertise opens the door for so many collaborative opportunities. From new course development, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and advanced degrees that are improved and/or designed to conferences, seminars, and workshops that challenge the status quo and look to the future to technology entrepreneurship, the futures of higher education and manufacturing are dependent upon each other.

IMEC

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