Engineering the workforce: Virginia’s universities adapt to provide sought-after skills

By Veronica Garabelli

Virginia Business

Rockwell Automation, a provider of industrial automation and information products, has had a hard time recruiting engineers, and so have many of its customers.

“There’s either a current or pending engineering shortage around various types of engineers,” says John McSorley, sales manager with Milwaukee-based Rockwell, which has offices in Richmond and Roanoke.

Virginia Commonwealth University is aware of that shortage and is responding. Rockwell is one of more than 75 companies helping the VCU School of Engineering in Richmond develop an undergraduate certificate in automation and controls (other companies include Newport News Shipbuilding and Ashland-based Flexicell, a provider of automation equipment for manufacturing companies).

The certificate would include a blend of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering, plus computer science courses that could be applied to a wide range of industries.

Engineers with these skills would help develop technologies, from digital shipbuilding to the development of driverless cars. VCU hopes to begin awarding the certificate next year, and the school also expects to make courses available to engineers seeking continuing education classes.

Several companies also have donated money and equipment to help students gain hands-on experience in industrial automation, including Rockwell, Altria Group, AMF Bakery Systems and Weightpack Inc.

The VCU certificate program is one example of how Virginia’s engineering schools adapt to employers’ needs and a changing marketplace.

Seeking ‘blue water’

The University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science in Charlottesville is hiring more faculty in the growing field of Internet of Things (IoT), a network of internet-connected devices including smart watches, such, as the Fitbit and smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo. The university also is home to the Link Lab, which focuses on IoT research. U. Va. has hired five new faculty members to join the lab and plans to hire three more.

“We’ve been looking [into developing] new faculty groups and programs in those areas where there’s a lot of what I would call ‘blue water,’ a lot of opportunity where nobody owns that space,” says Craig Benson, dean of U.Va.’s engineering school.

Computer science is an area with lots of blue water for Virginia’s universities. This field is attracting attention at many schools. At U.Va., the total number of students enrolled in an undergraduate computer degree program has grown 50 percent since 2013, from 721 to 1,081 today.

VCU awarded 289 bachelor’s degrees in engineering during the 2016-17 academic year. Most of those degrees were in mechanical engineering, but computer engineering and computer science saw the biggest jump from the previous year (46 percent each).

Dean Barbara Boyan attributes this type of growth to a climbing demand for talent in the technology field. “We can’t mint these students fast enough,” she says.

Most undergraduates at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg were enrolled in the general engineering program last academic year (2,187 students), but mechanical engineering and computer science were the next two most popular majors. Virginia Tech’s mechanical engineering program, however, has seen the largest total enrollment growth in the last decade.

New degrees at GMU

In the heart of Northern Virginia’s technology sector, most students at George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering in Fairfax are pursuing undergraduate degrees in information technology, but undergraduate degrees in computer science aren’t far behind (the majors registered 1,400 and 1,000 students, respectively).

The fastest-growing majors, however, are the school’s newest undergraduate programs, cybersecurity and mechanical engineering. Major breaches in recent years have given cybersecurity a high profile. In addition, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has made the training of more Virginia cybersecurity professionals a major priority as he tries to decrease the state economy’s dependence on federal spending.

“The computer-related fields [IT, computer science, cybersecurity, computer engineering] continue to experience enormous job growth and demand at all degree levels,” says Kenneth Ball, dean of GMU’s engineering school.

GMU hopes to add several programs next year, including master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering. It also plans to add a bachelor’s degree in statistics and a master’s degree in bioengineering.

ODU’s cyber center

At Old Dominion University in Norfolk the mechanical engineering program remains a popular choice. It attracts the most students and is seeing the most growth.

“That’s a nationwide trend,” says Stephanie Adams, dean at ODU’s Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology. “It’s what I would call more of the generalist degree in engineering, meaning you can get that degree then go off and go in-depth in a different area.”

Nonetheless, ODU also is placing an emphasis on cybersecurity. In 2015 the university launched the Center for Cybersecurity Education and Research, offering a cybersecurity major and minor. This fall the school will add cyber operations and cyber crimes majors.

Because they are interdisciplinary, the cyber majors are under the College of Arts and Letters. However, a dozen of the 30 professors affiliated with the center are from the Batten College, says Hongyi “Michael” Wu, the center’s director.

The center also is renovating its cybersecurity lab, which will be available to students by fall. The lab will have its own network, separate from ODU’s, allowing it to replicate real-life scenarios. For example, the students will be able to release a computer virus to see how it impacts machines inside the lab. This type of experiment is typically not allowed inside a campus network.

“It’s very unique and a nice facility to support both teaching and research projects,” Wu says.

In April, professors in ODU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering won a $360,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to host NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program in cybersecurity for the next three summers. The program kicked off May 30, with 10 undergraduates from across the U.S.

New home for Liberty’s school

Virginia Tech and Northern Virginia and Virginia Western community colleges also recently won federal funds to help low-income students pursue engineering degrees. The National Science Foundation has awarded the schools a $5 million grant for the Virginia Tech Network for Engineering Transfer Students (VT-NETS).

“The program will support scholarships through 2022 for low-income students in community colleges seeking to transfer to four-year institutions and pursue a career in the engineering field,” says Julia Ross, who becomes dean of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering on July 31.

Students at Liberty University’s School of Engineering and Computational Sciences should get plenty of hands-on experience for their engineering careers when the school moves from its campus in Lynchburg to the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research (CAER) in Bedford County in 2019.  Liberty has purchased the CAER campus and building, housed at the New London Business and Technology Center Park. The partnership between Liberty and CAER will focus on energy generation, storage, transmission and control. The goal is to have students and professors work alongside industry representatives.

Through new facilities and degree programs, Virginia’s schools are heeding the call for highly skilled engineers in a variety of areas.

“It’s an exciting time to be part of this industry because there’s so many advancements taking place with smarter devices, which is helping to enable smart manufacturing,” Rockwell’s McSorley says. “VCU is helping prepare the next generation of the workforce to be able to quickly acclimate into that space.”