Engineering for Virginia’s Workforce

Illustration of the Richmond skyline

The VCU College of Engineering is building Virginia’s highly skilled workforce. From industry-driven collaborations like Capstone Design to internships and co-ops that immerse students in the workplace — and keep them working in Virginia after graduation — VCU Engineering is partnering with companies to fill the skills gap.

“The problems engineers are called on to solve are in the real world. Public-private partnerships are our foundation and help us educate students to make it real,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Chair and dean of the VCU College of Engineering. “As we’ve matured, we’ve reached out more and more to our industry partners to take advantage of their experience and to train engineers who add value to their work.”

Partnering with Industry

The college’s industry partnerships are visible all over campus, and beyond. On any given day, employers like Altria, CoStar or Dominion Energy are giving tech talks, hosting networking sessions and advising on student projects. VCU Engineering also provides advanced training — on location — to those already in the field.

The state’s economic growth depends on availability of skilled talent, and VCU Engineering takes advantage of its ideal position to supply it, said L. Franklin Bost, M.B.A., IDSA, FAIMBE, director of VCU’s Institute for Engineering and Medicine and executive associate dean for innovation and outreach.

“VCU is the state’s only engineering program located in the capital and a center of industry. This builds a solid, often longlasting, connection between our graduates and Virginia’s economy,” Bost said.

Numbers tell the same story. Ninety percent of VCU Engineering students are from the commonwealth, and 75% stay in Virginia after graduation. Its high percentage of first-generation and transfer students helps keep skilled talent in Virginia, according to Boyan. “The ties our students have to the state, plus all the thriving companies and startups, create an ecosystem that lets us train engineers and watch them flourish in the state’s workforce,” she said.

The college and its partners want to keep it that way.

Companies asked for a skilled workforce in key areas. The college responded with undergraduate cybersecurity and data science specializations, partnerships with the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing and courses in automation and controls.

The college is also helping mid-career engineers take the next step. VCU, with the state’s only comprehensive nuclear engineering program, worked with Newport News Shipbuilding to offer its engineers a commute-free master's degree program that offers classes remotely, but in real-time.

Whether on campus or on location, dynamic collaborations like these are part of VCU Engineering’s bedrock, according to Paul F. Rocheleau, M.B.A., executive director of strategic development.

“When you look at the historical perspective of the college, you see that we were created with every intention of being a partner to business,” he said. “Over time, we have become the focal point for providing talent to Virginia’s innovation economy.”

Experiential Learning

When VCU’s engineering graduates join the workforce, they’ve already met Virginia companies through programs like Capstone Design and the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program.

Capstone Design is the culmination of the undergraduate curriculum. Businesses, the medical center, industry and nonprofits provide challenges for teams of seniors to invent solutions to real engineering problems. Student teams work two semesters on need analysis, problem definition, solution concepts, prototype development and evaluation. Their solutions are presented at the Capstone Design Expo in VCU’s Siegel Center.

“Companies like Newport News Shipbuilding, Hamilton Beach Brands, Suez North America and ChemTreat are regular sponsors of Capstone projects, and they end up hiring a lot of our graduates,” said Bennett C. Ward, Ph.D., director of project outreach and Capstone Design coordinator.

Students aren’t just working with companies, they’re forming new ones, too. Engineering capstone teams are now partnering with entrepreneurship students from the School of Business in a transdisciplinary collaboration that brings real-world, experiential learning to both programs. “Capstone Design continues to become increasingly entrepreneurial, with a real mandate to move ideas from Capstone to companies,” Boyan said.

Research initiatives also turn out workforce-ready engineers. VCU is Virginia’s only university in the prestigious VIP Consortium, which includes university participants from around the world. The VIP@VCU program engages early undergrads on multi-year research projects with more senior students, grad students and faculty. These long-term efforts bring students into complex projects and give them opportunities to take on leadership roles as they advance in their academic path toward graduation. A number of VIP projects also include business, medicine, arts and science students.

The Dean’s Undergraduate Research Initiative (DURI) provides one-year fellowships for students to participate in advanced research alongside the college’s grad students, postdocs and faculty.

“These programs give undergrads professional-level research experience,” Boyan said. “They’re not ‘junior varsity.’ They’re part of an advanced lab team and come out ready for commercial and government labs.”

The Dean’s Early Research Initiative (DERI) introduces high school students to engineering with one-year research fellowships for sophomores, juniors and seniors. Many DERI fellows go on to major in engineering as a result.

Building the Pipeline

Internships — and a new co-op program — show students how their engineering education applies to the real world. They also benefit employers.

“These programs provide important feedback that helps us align our curriculum to meet employer needs,” said Anita Hazel Taylor, director of VCU Engineering Career Services. “They also give employers more data points for evaluating candidates than a 45-minute interview would.”

VCU Engineering’s internships and co-ops are also an important cost savings and force multiplier for businesses.

“Recruiting talent is risky and expensive,” said Rocheleau. “These programs let employers get to know students well and helps cut through the challenges of going out and recruiting an ‘unknown quantity.’ Students also provide businesses with energy, new ideas and fresh perspectives”

In the last five years alone, more than 600 engineering students have completed internships. Among the more than 300 employers that regularly hire VCU engineering interns are big Virginia companies like Capital One, Northrop Grumman and WestRock as well as high-impact small and medium-sized businesses such as ColonialWebb and FCP Brakes.

Trailblazing Rams have organized their own co-ops since the college’s early years, but VCU Engineering started a formal co-op program in 2017. Unlike internships, co-ops offer a full-time work opportunity for at least three semesters. Co-op students can alternate between working full time and taking classes. Participating in a co-op assignment allows students to help offset the expense of their education while providing them with career skills.

Once the college formalized the program, participation took off. More than a third of the 145 co-op work rotations since 2014 were completed in the 2017 academic year alone. Employer demand continues to build. Eleven co-op rotations are already scheduled for summer 2019.

VCU Engineering’s industry-responsive programs and partnerships are rooted in the college’s collaborative, creative and entrepreneurial culture. Boyan sees that culture as its key differentiator.

“We’re nimble, forward thinking and not bogged down by tradition,” she said. “We’re meeting the world where it is and partnering at every intersection.”