Education re-engineered

Collaborative engineering education program fills technical talent pipeline

Posted on Sep 15, 2017 :: Education and Training
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

All Dessi Koss knew for sure when she graduated high school was that she liked working with machines.

Taking them apart, putting them back together or modifying them — it didn’t really matter. It was something she enjoyed, but didn’t really think about pursuing it as a career. Instead, she opted to enter the workforce right out of high school.

After a couple of years working as a laborer in a shipping yard, Koss realized she wanted something more from her work life, something those latent talents could deliver. She took a job with Essco Inc., a Green Bay-area mechanical design firm. She also began taking classes in Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s mechanical design technology program.

“I always liked tinkering with machines,” Koss says. “I thought that was a great way to build on that.”

As she neared graduation from NWTC, Koss began to hear about the new collaborative engineering technology program being launched by the universities and technical schools in the region that would enable her to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Motivated and encouraged by her employer, Koss enrolled as one of the first students in the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay cohort of the collaborative engineering technology program. This past spring, she became one of its first graduates.

“This was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Koss says of her decision to pursue her degree in mechanical engineering. Using the collaborative program, she could stay close to home, continue working, minimize her debt load and graduate on time.

The engineering technology degree program is an initiative the Northeast Wisconsin Education Resource Alliance launched to fill the escalating demand for engineers in the region, which has some of the highest demand for engineering and technology talent in the state.

0917_education_training_2_webStudents can start their studies at any one of the 12 NEW ERA schools, which include four technical colleges, five UW colleges, a tribal college and the four-year UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh campuses. Students finishing the program can earn a degree in electrical engineering technology, environmental engineering technology or mechanical engineering technology from either UW-Green Bay or UW-Oshkosh.

The result is highly skilled local talent to match up with the needs of regional employers.

“I know there were a lot of folks who wanted to recruit me as I neared graduation,” says Koss, who has remained at Essco. “This program is great for keeping talented students in the region by preparing them for jobs that are already here.”

That was a driving force behind the program, says Gregory Kleinheinz, a professor and chairman of the engineering technology department at UW-Oshkosh.

“We have been up and running for a couple of years now and all signs are it’s a pretty big hit,” Kleinheinz says. “The graduates are getting hired right away, and we get calls all the time about who is graduating next.”

Kleinheinz says the program grows each year as more students learn about the program and realize the opportunities available in engineering technology. About 160 students were enrolled in the program at UW-Oshkosh during the 2016-17 academic year, he says.

The nature of the regional universities and technical schools makes the program a direct talent conduit for regional employers, he says. Most students who attend the schools are from the region, and most will stay in the region after graduation.

“I am from the Fox Valley, and I am planning to stay because my whole family resides in the Fox Valley,” says Peng Lor, who is working on finishing his engineering technology degree at UW-Oshkosh. “I actually worked for Plexus before I started going to school to become an engineer. I was always fascinated by how electronics are designed and how they are made. I never considered becoming an engineer until I started working more one-on-one with the engineers at Plexus.”

Of those students who come from outside the region, about 30 to 35 percent likely will remain here as well, Kleinheinz says.

The fully accredited program is not only a unique collaboration among the educational institutions, he says, but has also made a concerted effort to involve regional industry to make sure graduating students have the skills to enter the workforce immediately.

“It’s a unique and close relationship among all the parties,” he says.

For Koss, it changed her life, and now she has a career where she loves what she does and enjoys going into work each day. It also has inspired her to reach even higher.

“I’m 26 right now, so I think I would like to work for a few years yet,” Koss says. “But I am definitely thinking about going back for my master’s degree.”