Thriving in College

With convocation being held this week, campus is bustling with the activity of thousands of new students. This includes about 850 new Engineering students at UMass Lowell, including freshmen and transfers. A recent post by Valerie Strauss, “Getting into college was the easy part. Staying there is becoming harder than ever, experts say,” in The Washington Post (August 14, 2017), which draws on a blog from Brennan Barnard, reminded me that the transition to college is not always easy for students. In fact, the article claimed that it is easier to get into college than to stay in college. I would disagree that it is easy to get into Engineering, but there is no doubt that one must be diligent to stay on track towards graduation. Continue reading

American Time Use Survey (part II): Educational Pursuits

In my last blog, I took a look at commuting travel time for Americans from data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and its “American Time Use Survey” (In this note, I wanted to examine the amount of time spent on educational activities.

The survey breaks out “Educational Activities” according to attending class, homework and research, and related travel time. Additionally, it breaks out whether class attendance is in pursuit of a degree, certification or licensure.

In College, we stress lifelong learning to our students. In Engineering, the accreditation body ABET specifically states this as one of 10 required student outcomes: “a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning.” It should be clear that this is a requirement in the field of Engineering, because technology continues to evolve at a dramatic pace. Thus, Engineers must continue to educate themselves, formally and/or informally, to stay ahead (or at least keep pace).

According to the survey data, 8.3% of Americans aged 15 and over participated in educational activities. This number plummets to 2.2% for those employed full-time and increases to 16.7% for those employed part-time.

How does this relate to a decade ago? All of the percentages are down, from 9.4%, 3.8%, and 19.4%, respectively. Interestingly, the data doesn’t show tremendous variance over the decade (range is between 7.9% and 9.4% for the overall cohort) despite covering a recession and recovery period.

Taking a deeper dive into the data according to age, 37.4% of those between the ages of 15 and 24 (inclusive) are pursuing education. This drops precipitously to 6.0% for those between 25 and 34 (inclusive) and to 2.5% for those in the 35 to 44 year-old range.

I want to focus on the data for those in the 25 to 34 age range, because given the age divisions provided by the survey, this group encompasses the most recent college graduates and those that are most likely early in their career. The 6% participation is one full percentage point lower than the average over the past decade, and 2.6% lower than the high for the decade, although it is not the lowest. A regression line through the 10 years worth of data is relatively flat, signaling little change over time. As an educator, I am more concerned about the low percentage.

A look at census data on educational attainment in the United States, from the U.S. Census Bureau gives us further insight into the meaning of the participation rate. The bureau reports on educational attainment of the American population aged 25 and over. The time use survey reports rates of participation in educational activities as 3.6% (ages 25 through 54 years), 1.4% (ages 55 to 64 years), and 0.7% (ages 65 and older). As the population of the United States is distributed roughly at 48%, 13%, and 15%, respectively, for these age brackets (also from Census data), we can compute a participation rate in educational activities of about 2.5% for the population aged 25 and older.

In America (according to 2016 Census data), 30% of the population aged 25 and over has attained an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. This drops to 21% for a bachelor’s degree and 12.6% for a master’s, doctorate or professional degree. So, if (rounding) 13% of the population has an advanced degree by age 25, that means that 8% of the population has the ability to pursue an advanced degree (difference between bachelor’s degree holders and advanced degree holders). But, as computed above from the time survey data, only 2.5%, or less than 1/3 of those eligible, choose to pursue education. In fact, the percentage that could be pursuing an advanced degree is actually lower, because the 2.5% figure includes the entire population, which may not have a bachelor’s degree.

Does everyone need to pursue an advanced degree? Of course not, but I would argue that all engineers have to continue their education beyond the bachelor’s degree. Technology is changing too rapidly and one must continue honing skills in this ever-changing environment.

Now, I could be overly paranoid. The percentage of bachelor’s degrees conferred in Engineering and Engineering Technology in the United States is roughly 5.5% (from the National Center for Education Statistics, at nces.ed.gov). So, if 21% of the population aged 25 and over has a bachelor’s degree, roughly 1.2% of that population are engineers. Furthermore, if 2.5% of those aged 25 and over are pursuing further education, then maybe all of the engineers (and others) are continuing their education.

But having completed that computation, I am once again reminded of another concern: the low number of degree-d engineers in our population.

More to come…

 

 

You’ve graduated… and now you need to decide on a job!

Jeffrey Sparshott of The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed an interesting article in the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper series by John Haltiwanger, Henry Hyatt, Lisa B. Kahn, and Erika McEntarfer concerning job place mobility. The conclusion, which perhaps was not surprising, was that small companies were viewed more as potential “poachers” of talent from larger companies, rather than vice versa. To me, this leads to an interesting question for graduates looking to enter the workforce – timely as we just held commencement ceremonies a few weeks ago.

What job is the best fit for me?

Honestly, this is one of my favorite questions to discuss with soon to be graduates: First off, it’s a great question because it means that the soon to be graduate is in a great situation of having multiple job offers. Second, it’s a great question because there is no right answer – but there are surely many aspects to consider which impact people differently. These aspects include location, job title, salary, industry, and, yes, company size, which is often related to culture.

So the question to ponder here is, “What is the better first job, one with a small company – such as a start-up, or one with a large company that is well established?” Again, there is no right answer, but many aspects to consider.

With a large company, there is likely to be more stability, as the company will (generally) have its funding in order and thus can concentrate on its core business. Start-ups are usually in a more precarious position with regards to funding, and thus, their employees are generally at a higher risk of turnover or job loss. Note: large firms are not immune to this, especially firms such as defense contractors that rely on winning government contracts – a lost contract can also mean lost jobs. But in general, large firms tend to be more stable. This may be important if one has obligations and must financially care for dependents.

Of course, the counter to stability can be exciting – working to stay in business can be an exhilarating experience. And for taking the risk, employees are often compensated with stock options such that if the company does make it – the employees still receive a financial “buffer”.

Another factor to consider is professional development. Large companies often have well-established programs that provide employees an opportunity to improve their current job performance, as well as benefit their careers in general. Such training may be “in-house” – soft-skills programs overseen by professional trainers or human resource teams. Some companies may choose to partner with universities to provide training that can lead to certifications and advanced degrees. Many firms may cover the cost of tuition completely (or a percentage), assuming the employee succeeds in the coursework (often measured by the resulting grade).

Small companies, for reasons already noted, do not generally have these training programs in place. However, the training they offer can be equally valuable – on the job training. A strong argument in support of taking a job at a small company is that one will generally have the opportunity to wear “many hats” while at the firm. A budding engineer may get to work on various projects while also selecting and validating potential vendors – a task that normally occurs through a sourcing department in a big company. It may also mean that a civil engineer hired to do some structural analysis will also be writing computer code to implement solutions – again, a task that may be handed off to a software engineering department at a bigger firm. Small company job seekers need to be prepared for the potential diversity in their job tasks, which can be enjoyable. However, one may never achieve the “depth” of a position that they desire.

One “myth” that I believe does exist is that only smaller companies are looking for employees with entrepreneurial mindsets. While smaller companies undoubtedly look for these traits in employees, it should not imply that large companies do not seek employees with these skills. Large companies need similarly thinking employees in order to forge new areas for business, whether it is new product development or expanding current products into new markets. These types of “moves” require thinking that is often out of the box, or entrepreneurial. This is why our Chancellor started the DifferenceMaker program at UMass Lowell – to allow every student to engage in entrepreneurial endeavors during their time on campus.

In Engineering, we have expanded these options to include a prototyping competition, student club competitions, and externally sponsored senior design projects.

An entrepreneurial mindset will help with any future company – whether you are the first, second, or 1000th employee at the firm.

The Perfect Capstone Experience

ABET, formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, requires an integrative experience for all accredited programs. Specifically, according to abet.org:

Baccalaureate degree programs must provide a capstone or integrating experience that develops student competencies in applying both technical and non-technical skills in solving problems.

To me, the key to this experience is the application of both technical and non-technical skills. Interestingly, when employers are asked to rank the importance of different skills for new workers, they generally focus on non-technical skills. In a recent survey of employers, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) ranked leadership; ability to work in a team; communication skills (written); problem-solving skills; communication skills (verbal); strong work ethic; and initiative, ahead of quantitative and technical skills in terms of importance.

This is why it is critical that students gain experience during their schooling, and why I champion co-ops and internships. However, if designed properly, the capstone experience that is required by ABET provides another opportunity to develop integrated technical and non-technical skills. The key ingredients to these capstone projects are:

  • Complex design problem defined by external stakeholder and faculty mentor.
  • Teams of interdisciplinary teams working towards a solution.
  • Significant and ongoing opportunities for written and oral communication between the student teams, mentor and stakeholder.

I truly believe that the best projects come from outside the ivory tower. This is not to say that a Professor cannot define a great project for a student team to tackle – surely they can. However, they cannot provide an “outsider’s perspective” on the provided solution. That is, if a problem is defined by an external stakeholder (i.e., company, government entity, non-profit agency, etc.) that has a vested interest in the solution, then the students will be required to communicate the development of the solution over time with that entity. This is an important skill for students to develop – even engineers have to learn to “sell” their solutions, to co-workers, administrators, and clients. Furthermore, this generally requires both written and oral communication. (Note: it is assumed that the design problem posed by an external stakeholder is properly vetted and scoped, and that a faculty mentor will also work with the team.)

Our Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program has been working with non-profit agencies for years through its Assistive Technology Program. Through these projects, students develop technological solutions for people in need (i.e., physical or learning disabilities, etc.). The program continues to grow in scope, with projects starting to reach beyond just ECE capabilities.

Other Departments work with external partners too. Our Civil and Environmental Engineering Department has completed projects with the Massachusetts State Police while our Mechanical Engineering Department has completed projects with the National Parks Association. ME has also partnered with Physics to work on satellite design projects for NASA.

Turning to industry for that “outsider’s viewpoint”, we launched a new Interdisciplinary Senior Design program two years ago with great success. This year, we ran 16, year-long projects for Computer, Electrical, Mechanical and Plastics Engineering majors with sponsors that included Analog Devices, BAE Systems, Brooks Automation, Dell EMC, MACOM, MKS Instruments, Nypro (A Jabil Company), Raytheon, Skyworks, Symbotic and UTC Aerospace Systems. In general, the students proposed a solution in the first semester (after significant research) and built a prototype in the second semester.

While the solutions were great, I was more excited about the ongoing communications during the semester. The student teams were required to write a memo each week, detailing the advances for the week, next steps, and current (or potential future) concerns. This provided a running development log (augmenting project management plans as well as student engineering notebooks) and introduced the concept of risk analysis to students (by forcing them to identify current or potential concerns). It also served as a basis for weekly discussions between the students, the stakeholder, and the faculty mentor.

In addition to the memos and engineering notebook logs, the students were required to write multiple reports, develop a summary poster, and deliver numerous presentations. The final presentations were delivered in front of all teammates, classmates, faculty advisors, and stakeholder liaison engineers. It was the perfect culminating experience to the capstone program for this year. And it illustrated that a properly defined and executed capstone design project can advance those skills identified by NACE to be highly desirable by industry.

 

 

Defeating Student Debt through Co-op

The New York Times published an interesting article by Meredith Kolodner this week, entitled “6 Reasons You May Not Graduate on Time.” The author consulted a number of higher education professionals to define the leading causes. I’d like to focus on the first cause listed, “Working Overtime.”

According to the article, about 40 percent of undergraduates work 30 hours per week or more. Informal surveys in our classes support this number. This is a noble endeavor, as the student’s goal is generally to pay for College, including tuition, fees and living expenses. As noted in an earlier blog, the average debt of a student is around $34,000 upon graduation. This average amount of student debt is up nearly 70 percent in the last decade, according to a recent article in the The Wall Street Journal.

The problem is that working nearly full-time makes it difficult for a student to complete the required number of credits each semester to graduate on-time. That is, instead of taking 15 credits or more in a semester, students take a lighter load so they can work more hours. (Taking less than 15 credits a semester is also noted as a cause of delayed graduation by Kolodner.) But the problem is actually worse than taking a reduced load – working so many hours outside of the classroom detracts from time that should be spent on homework, studies and projects. This reduced time to devote to studies can lead to poor, even failing, grades, which in turn leads to repeating classes. The cascading effects should be clear, as graduation is pushed out further and further into the future. Even if one can muddle through the program, GPAs can be destroyed, making it difficult to land that great job upon graduation.

If there ever was a case for co-op education, this is it. Let’s do the finances.

Let’s assume that you register for 12 credits per semester because you want to work 30 hours per week to pay for tuition and fees. You land a retail position paying minimum wage, or $11 per hour in Massachusetts, for a total of $330 per week, which will result in about $265 per week in take home pay. Over the course of one semester (roughly 16 weeks with exams), this will total $4240 of take home pay. Not bad – as over two semesters this will cover roughly 60% of the in state tuition and fees at UMass Lowell. Working full-time over the summer will cover the remainder.

But wait. Let’s assume for a minute that the work truly got in the way of studies, such that the 24 credits, already at least six shy of what is needed in a given year to graduate in four years, is really only 18 credits of work towards the degree, because you had to drop one class each semester. Those 12 credits (6 dropped and 6 not attempted) are now an additional semester on campus – wiping out nearly all the money earned over the year.

How about the co-op option? Take six months, and get a job in your field. In engineering, this can easily mean $20 per hour. At full time, this is $800 per week, or about $612 take-home per week. Let’s assume 22 weeks (need a little time off), such that the total take home pay is $13,464 – enough to cover one full year of tuition and fees (in state) at UMass Lowell (with a few dollars left over). For the other six months, you do not work, so you can take 18 credits during the semester and another 6-9 credits in the six week summer session, before you return to work. With no other distractions, odds are, you will complete those courses successfully.

The only tradeoff now is: do you want to graduate in four years? Or do you want to graduate debt free? If graduating in four years is important (and it is!), then the six-month position cannot be repeated (although an additional 3-month experience is possible) and summers are now dedicated to school. But the 9 months of work looks great on the resume and the roughly $20,000 earned will go a long way in paying down debt. If stretching the time to graduation is OK, then the six-month experience can be repeated numerous times, driving that debt down towards zero.

So, leave that barista job to someone else during the semester. Ace those classes, and land that great co-op job. The results will be evident in your pocket, and on your transcript.