Education And R&D Can Save The Future

Oct. 19, 2007
Before we can create the next generation of electronics, we need engineers hard at work on their research and development--as well as the engineers to do that work

The only thing that’s more important to engineers than the project on their table is the next project to come down the line—at least, it should be.

The electronic industry is constantly being reinvented as new technologies keep Moore’s Law perpetually valid and thriving. After all, today’s high-end transistors, semiconductors, and other components are tomorrow’s landfill. Two key elements in keeping the electronics stone from gathering moss are education and research and development.

Keeping current is extremely important to an engineer—globalization and capitalism are driving technology. If you can’t keep up, then you’ll be left behind. Also, the Baby Boomer generation is starting to get a little long in the teeth, and somebody has to fill the empty seats when older EEs begin to trade their soldering irons and oscilloscopes for retirement packages and part-time consulting gigs. Equally important to the field is R&D—if nobody spends the time building the staircase, you’re never going to get to the second floor.

Some EEs work for companies that don’t have the budget for R&D, settling for older designs, while others enjoy R&D during downtime or work at it full-time. Some people believe engineering students are well educated, while others disagree (vehemently in some cases). Some work for companies that throw money at continuing education for employees, while other companies leave it out of the budget or outsource instead. Our 2007 Reader Survey we yielded a flurry of perspectives on both matters.

Whippersnappers Versus Geezers

So you went to school, got yourself a diploma, and landed a job in the industry. But whether you graduated last year or 20 years ago, the fact is that whatever you studied will invariably become outdated sooner or later. Sometimes, what you learn is yesterday’s news before you even get your diploma framed.

“It has been my belief that since the 1940s the level of preparedness as well as the breadth and depth of subject matter effectively covered in terms of requirements of the industry have been in constant decline and will continue possibly at an increasing rate well into the future,” said Jarret “doc” Ewanek, a senior design engineer. “This is simply due to the constraints of a four- to five-year degree program coupled with the ever-expanding technological knowledge base inherent with our profession.”

According to the survey, over 47% believe that their education equally prepared them for the industry’s challenges compared to the young bloods, while less than 40% believe they were better schooled.

One respondent said, “When I graduated I had a lot of good theory. I continued to read textbooks to sharpen my edge. A student graduating now is not as prepared as I am because I have 40+ years of experience. Compared to where I was in 1964, there is a whole lot more to know now. My experience with new engineers has been mixed.”

The remaining 14% feel that today’s students are better prepared than they were heading out of school. Plus, 78% of the populace (including young and old EEs) claim that their education adequately prepared them for their jobs.

Some believe, however, that outdated knowledge isn’t the problem. Instead, the focus and subject matter of professors and universities are missing the mark. Largely, universities focus on theory of application rather than real-time production. This leads to unforeseen hiccups when students transition to the workforce.

“Universities focus ever more on theory and analysis and less on intuitive understanding, synthesis, and real-world components,” said Bruce Carsten, president of Bruce Carsten Associates. “About 10 years ago, I had a recent graduate ask me if I could tell him where he could find all the formulas needed to design a power supply.”

There also seems to be a contingent of readers who believe college produces nothing more than beer-bellies. “Maybe it's just the age perspective, but young engineers seem to have, for the most part, majored in partying \[while\] in university,” said one respondent. Overall, it’s fair to assume that whether you bump into a whiz kid or sidestep a dunce at the snack machine depends on the company. Only time can weed out the true EEs of the future.

On the other hand, some believe that a shift from traditional coursework and design solutions is necessary to prepare young EEs for a change in an industry necessitating more Hardware Description Language (HDL), ASIC, and FPGA knowledge. “I believe that colleges and universities are now catering more to the demands of the industry,” said Michael Fogle, Fairchild Semiconductor principal strategist. “I find that new graduates are more ‘tool savvy’ \[in\] VHDL, Cadence, and MS Visual Studio.NET, for example.”

Academia aside, perhaps the best education rests in extracurricular activities. After all, applying what you learn to projects doubles your education and presents problems that reading books and tackling equations can’t.

“We like to say that engineers today don't have the hands-on skills to do the job, but if we honestly look back we see that the university we attended didn't prepare us any better,” said Bruce Femmel, senior electrical engineer at Tesla Motors. “All of the best engineers got their hands-on knowledge on their own in the garage or basement doing personal projects that interested them.”

Workers’ Comp

Although recess, tetherball, and food fights may be a distant memory for you, most EEs need to stay current with the technology that is out there, and getting on a school bus in the morning is no longer an option. But boning up on the technology isn’t as awful as you’d imagine—at least not from a monetary standpoint.

Over 62% of you are satisfied with your company’s policy on reimbursement for extra education. Most companies seem to favor seminars, trade shows, and conferences, while other methods such as textbooks, publication subscriptions, and engineering association dues are accepted and paid for, but by significantly fewer companies. While companies seem to focus largely on seminars and trade shows, engineers seem to enjoy a bit of variety in their education. According to our survey, your favorite methods of keeping up with technology include seminars and webinars, whitepapers, tradeshows, textbooks, and engineering publications amongst other outlets.

An even more impressive statistic is the percentage of companies that handle college tuition. Nearly three-quarters of the survey respondents, 72.1%, claim that their company provides college course tuition reimbursement. “The college reimbursement tuition program is a big plus,” said Harlan Faller, advanced technology manger at Johnstech International Corp. “At this company, engineers are encouraged to continue to improve themselves in their field of expertise.”

Also, those respondents who don’t receive tuition compensation work for companies that used to provide for education but have since cut the funding. Reemphasizing strong academic backing, though, 67.3% said that their company will be reimbursing college tuition costs five years from now. Apparently, the corporate side of the industry does not share the sentiments of dissenting readers who believe universities do not properly prepare EEs for the “real world.”

Strength in Numbers

According to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), universities have seen a rebound in college graduates after a decline in the 1990s. Consistently, 75,000 undergraduate diplomas were served each year during the 1980s to graduating engineering students.

“They had so many students that they didn’t worry about retention and recruitment,” said Mike Gibbons, ASEE director of data research. But in the following decade, the U.S. suffered a drop of around 10,000 graduates. Gibbons speculates that the drop came from a surging economy in the 1990s. But the decline following the surplus was a gut check. Universities couldn’t rely on students to pour in anymore.

The problem with disinterested students and poor retention could be rooted in high school or even before that. Justin Rhodes, for example, is a sophomore at Kenyon College with aspirations to one day become an EE. At high school, tech courses were minimal, and its hands-on design curriculum was limited in its number of students. “While this class was great for me, it was underfunded and little was done to promote it,” he said.

According to Gibbons, colleges, universities, and corporations are putting more into sparking interest in kids to become engineers than ever before. Fun tasks from rocket launches to robot wars can be found all over the country, all to keep a fresh supply of young minds filling lecture halls and staffing the benches of U.S. plants. He also stresses that schools are beginning to work interdependently.

In some cases, universities will lean on community colleges where they could host “feeder programs” to stimulate retention and nurture students. The extra attention seems to be paying off. In recent years, the graduation numbers are climbing back to where they were 20 years ago. Since 1999, bachelor’s degrees have been on a steady decline, resulting in moer than 74,000 graduates in 2006.

R&D: Tax Dollars at Work

Beyond recruiting and rearing the next celebrity engineers (see “Dream Jobs,” p. 58), universities are heavily vested in post-graduate programs as well. Competitions like DARPA’s Urban Challenge and others are only the beginning. According to Gibbons, the combined contributions from federal and state funding as well as corporations pump around $6 billion into the R&D ventures of U.S. colleges.

According to the survey, 41.4% of the companies represented in the poll feed revenue into collegiate R&D. But the elements of terrorism and war have contaminated many elements of U.S. livelihood—including technological R&D. Even with help from corporations, the government’s increased concentration on homeland security leaves collegiate institutions with the short end of the stick, even if they have government contracts, Gibbons reports.

Pulling revenue from university agenda to develop technology to help protect our borders is a welcomed idea for some of you, though. According the survey, nearly 40% of you feel that the government should be increasing R&D in homeland sSecurity. In fact, some of you believe that the government should only back student research programs and national security. “Other than university research grants and fulfilling their job protecting the country (military), I do not believe they should be spending our taxes on other things,” one respondent said.

Out of 10 choices, homeland security polled as the third highest priority for government funding. Alternative power is appealing for a large majority of EEs, pulling in 85.6%. Nanotechnology, the second largest supported area. was supported by over 46% of the sample. Over a quarter of the respondents want funding to go to broadband infrastructure. Robotics received 27.2% backing, and biocomputing and supercomputing received 18.7% and 15.9%, respectively.

Another popular avenue for R&D is space exploration. There also is a voice pulling for less government involvement and in effect less taxes on companies and workers. Less than a third of the companies represented, 30.1%, receive funds and contracts from the government.

“I prefer to see industry take the initiative and make these investments,” said Pete Soper, engineering manager at Meyer Sound Laboratories. “I do not feel that it is the government’s role to direct or fund R&D apart from those programs needed for essential defense, and even that I feel would be better handled by private investment.”

Fuel for the Fire

Whether you mark it down to global competition, the sake of creation, or any other reason, R&D is an enabling function of engineering. On a corporate level, only 28.3% reported that their company is investing more of its internal revenue for R&D than in previous years. More than half the poll-takers, 52.8%, claim that their company invests the same amount.

Even though the combined percentage of companies investing more or the same amount of funds represents over 80% of the EEs surveyed, only 54.3% of the populace believes that their company is investing enough. Notwithstanding the companies that are too small for R&D, are primarily consulting businesses, or are in industries that don’t require much development, a significant portion of EEs feels management needs to step up to the plate.

“R&D is key to the future of any company,” said systems architect Jonathan Gallmeier. “We have restricted our R&D efforts based upon a financial model where the key decision makers may not understand what they are giving up by limiting R&D in terms of future products, time to market and so on.”

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