workforce-skills-gap

Why Does the Academic-Practice Gap Exist and How Can We Close It?

Feb. 17, 2020
Amanda Del Buono talks to R. Russell Rhinehart, engineering coach and professor at the Oklahoma State University’s School of Chemical Engineering about the academic-practice gap, why it exists, and if it can actually be closed.

What is the Academic-Practice Skills Gap and why should we care about it? We answer those questions and more in the most recent episode of the Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce podcast. In this episode, Amanda Del Buono is joined by Russ Rhinehart, engineering coach and professor at Oklahoma State University's School of Chemical Engineering. Russ left his career in industry to move into education and help fix the academic practice gap. In fact, Russ is currently calling for process control professionals to share their thoughts on how students can be better prepared for the process control industry. 

Listen to the full recording below, on our podcast page, or through your favorite podcast app. 

TRANSCRIPT

Amanda Del Buono: Russ, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm excited to have you on after reading all of your workforce pieces on Control Global.

Russ Rhinehart: Thanks, Amanda. I'm looking forward to the discussion. This is an important topic for me. And I greatly appreciate you guys inviting me.

AD: Absolutely. So, just to get started, I understand that you've bucked the process control industry for academia. What were you seeing in the industry that sparked your desire to make that switch? And what were you hoping to accomplish?

RR: I worked 13 years for chemical manufacturing in a variety of different jobs. I really enjoyed working in industry, making things happen. I was in process development and product development, and then, eventually, manufacturing. They promoted me, and that got me to realize how important it was to bring new hires up to speed, to help them through the transition of being a student, and I had to go, myself, through that transition and I feel that it took me about two years to catch on when I first started as an engineer. And so, I took on the job of coaching about six new hires in our overall department.

I had one of them, but the others were in other groups, to try to accelerate the transition to make them more productive, faster starters for the company. I really enjoyed coaching people through the transition. And I said, "Well, this is sort of like teaching." I also had ideas for how to use models for control in automated methods. This was back in the '70s and '80s, and I had just bought a home computer, a TRS 80 color computer, for my kids to play on. And I was doing more complicated things on my computer that our controllers were. And I thought, "Well, we could do that." So, for those two reasons I left industry to become a college professor to pursue improving education in preparing students for the transition and also to explore process control.

AD: So, you kind of glossed over it a little bit, but what would you say is the skills gap? What do you most prominently see when it comes to the gap? Is it certain soft skills or technical skills or are these just skills are learned through experience?

RR: Well, it's all, for sure. Anytime a person in industry changes their job function, they have to learn a lot of new skills. They have to learn a lot of new people. But there's still the way of industry and that's very different from the way of being a student. You become successful as a student by memorizing everything the professor told you to memorize and regurgitating it back on tests, by being able to learn isolated things not things in context, by learning not doing. And so, there's also the youth community that students are in. And within the youth community, they can be contestants with each other because they're all peers and there's no consequences of the community. There might be consequences to the student if they don't study and get good grades on the test, but there's no consequences to the whole community.

So, there's a lot of big changes in transitioning from being a student with a job of learning in a youth perspective environment to working in a professional environment with the big consequences. And your job isn't to learn; your job is to make things happen for the better. And because the students are programmed for 12 years through high school, and then another 4 years, maybe 5 years in college, they're programmed to be in that youth student environment. They have to change their way of being.

So, it's not so much the technical skills but they have to learn technical skills or the soft skills, but they have to learn soft skills. We all have to continually learn as we transition functions. But it's really this perspective that students have about life, about how to be, that was shaped by education that they need to set aside and adopt a new way of being, a new way of looking at life, a new perspective. So, I think the gap is not so much on the skills as it is on the way of being.

AD: Right. So, moving from being a student to an actual practitioner then?

RR: Yes, yes.

AD: Okay. So, what is the impact of the gap? What kind of impact is it having on industry?

RR: So, we graduate maybe 120,000 engineers in the U.S. every year, colleges, universities, 120,000 students. About 80% of them eventually go to industry. Some of them go to medical school or music school or law school or they do something else, but eventually about 80% of those end up being hired in industry.

And so if it takes two years for a person to catch on fully, to shed their student perspectives, to become professional perspectives, and if that perspective change has about a 20% reduction in productivity because of the incomplete perspective, the extra coaching that they need, the things that they misdirect their time on, and if you multiply all of that times maybe the cost of a one-year salary of an engineer to industry, $150,000, when you include overhead and benefits and things like that, I come out with $3 billion a year in lost productivity because of the gap, because of the transition, because of students not getting it when they move from school to industry because of the time it takes them to do it. So, I'm looking at the impact as may be on the order of a billion dollars a year.

AD: Wow.

RR: And whether you say 70% of the students or whether you say it's 80% or whether you say we have a 20% loss in productivity or 40% loss in productivity or 10% loss in productivity, it doesn't matter. It's a huge number. And that's per year to the U.S. economy with engineers.

But I'll tell you that the complaints about the gap are the same in nursing, healthcare, accounting, psychologists, education. When you prepare people to be teachers in elementary, junior, and high school, the students that start their careers teaching say the same thing. So, the gap is a lot larger than just engineering. It is part of how education prepares people for professional careers. But in engineering, it is maybe a billion dollars or more a year in the U.S. as to the impact.

AD: Yeah, wow. So, you kind of mentioned that there's a transitional period of graduates learning, you know, moving from being a student to being a practitioner, a professional. Are there any other main reasons that we have the gap? Is there anything that education could be doing to better prepare people for these transitions?

RR: So, I think the answer to both is yes. Some of the reasons for the gap, let's consider education. The professor has 30, 50 people in the classroom. The professor needs to get them to learn. So, the professor can't confuse them with complicated context in the business scenario and the people behind in the legal issues. So, the professor focuses on the science fundamentals without the context. In order for the students to learn quickly to be able to grasp fundamental engineering science concepts, they're done in isolation and idealization. And so, we start people with the ideal gas law, and then after they're able to use it, we tell them that there's lots of other issues that need to be considered. But the complexities of condensation and ionization and intermolecular forces is just really too complicated to learn quickly. And so often, we just keep the ideal gas law and we send them on to the next level with that as their understanding.

Professors need to grade lots of papers. We need to credential that the students are learning the material. And so, you can't ask them complicated questions. You have to ask them very easy-to-grade questions because the grading is usually done by a teaching assistant, not by the professor themselves. And the teaching assistants are Masters students or Ph.D. students that are just learning, that just came out of the undergraduate program themselves. And so, the grading has to be multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank questions, very simple calculations in order to show that the students have the basic concepts. And then you send them on to the next basic concepts.

So, I think in education, the environment for professionalism of the students is learning very elementary concepts in an isolated, idealized situation. When the students get out, it's a complex situation. They have to learn things, but there's no professor telling them, "Did you learn it correctly?" They have to test themselves, but we don't teach students to self-evaluate. We don't tell students, "Go learn this material and come back to me and demonstrate that you understand it." We create the questions. We tell them what to learn, and in industry, it's all self-guided learning and self-guided testing. And we don't prepare students for that. So, there are lots of aspects of education that make learning efficient that also create an environment that does not prepare the students for what they have to do when they transition to professional practice.

AD: Right. That's really interesting. And it kind of dovetails into what I wanted to ask next. In your February column, you said, "If we want to change what is taught in the classroom, then we need to change the environment in which current practices have evolved. But then the instructional practices and faculty persona that have evolved academically would not be suitable. To change the academic environment, the faculty members would have to evolve." Do we need a total evolution of education in the way that our professors are teaching and why?

RR: I think we need a change. I wouldn’t say a total evolution. You know, the saying is don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Make sure when you throw away the bad that you keep the good. So, I think we have to be very careful about changing education. I think it does need to be changed. I'll also say that there are some professors that are very interested, that understand the practice and what the students are going to have to do with their next level and understand the transition and help the students go through that transition. This often happens in mechanical engineering with the unit operations or the design classes. And sometimes, the professors will bring in industry speakers for seminars to help prepare the students for what's coming next.

I'll also say that there's some schools that are very practice-oriented, that aren't getting their fame and fortune and reputation because of their Ph.D. program and their research but are trying to establish their reputation because they're preparing people for the practice. So, the entire education system is not at fault. But I would say that the predominant values in education are to become a famous university through graduate research, through Ph.D. research. In order to do this, we need funding for the graduate students and for the professors and for equipment. Most of the funding comes from science foundations, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, things like that. These are not industry practitioners' organizations that are shaping the funding, that their scientists that are shaping the funding. So, most of the professors are pursuing science research not practice.

Most of the professors come out of the Ph.D. program, science research, and are hired so that they can bring in money to support famous graduate publications. So, I think most of the academic criteria for success is misdirects, what's being taught in the classroom. So, I think we can do lots of things. I don't think we need a total evolution because I think the graduate program and the research, the extension of knowledge and from these areas that we do in the academic community is important for opening paths. So, I think a lot of what we do in the graduate research is important, but certainly, it is not supporting preparing people for practice careers.

AD: Interesting. So, you touched on education's role in that. And so, what role, if any, is industry playing in the academic practice gap? What are they doing to help or hinder?

RR: Okay. I don't think the gap is industry's fault. I think industry has a different environment from the environment that academics have created to raise students in. And so, the industry is a customer. Industry hires the students. And I think industry needs to be a good customer. So if the supplier makes an off-spec product or a product that doesn't quite meet industry's needs, I think industry's role is to let the supplier know that they need an alternate attribute. They need different specifications on their product. So, I think industry needs to be a good customer.

One of the problems is that the funding for the universities is not through industry. It's through federal, state governments, science foundations that do the funding for the research, and for donations from major donors and all of this is controlled by established academics, scientists. And so, the control of all of the funding is not by industry people. The control of all of the funding is by people that are invested in the current academic structure. And so, I think the role of industry to help close the academic gap would be to collaborate in professional industry societies, industry institutions, to send a strong message about the impact to the different agencies that are in charge of education. And this would include the accreditation boards. It would include the federal government and the state governments that dictate lots of funding the boards and regions in the States. So, I think industry can influence by stating what the problem is, by stating what solutions might be, and that they have to get the people in charge in order to make those changes.

One of the issues is that the language is so different between the academics and the industry. When I left industry and started my career at Texas Tech University, I was there for 12 years before coming to become the head at Oklahoma State. Our Industrial Advisory Board came to us and said, "Students, when they graduate, they don't know how to communicate." When a professor writes a paper, the last thing they do in the paper is to put the conclusions. In industry, the first line you want to read is, "What do we have to do about this? What's the conclusion?" And so, industry said, "Students don't know how to communicate."

And the professors in the department said, "You're right. We agree with you. They don't know how to communicate. We're going to fix this. We're going to send them to another English course." And so, they added a technical writing course to the curriculum, which was taught by graduate students in the English department, supposedly teaching the engineering students how to communicate for industry. And, of course, all they do is preserve the academic way of doing things. So, just the word “communicate,” it means something very different in industry to how the academics interpret it. So, I think it's not going to be an easy fix because our language is different. Our understanding of the issues is different. So, I think it's something we need to work on and I think industry can be a good customer. But I don't think it's gonna be an easy fix.

AD: Right. Interesting. Well, is there anything else that could be done or maybe should be done to improve communication and maybe cooperation between industry in academia to help fill the gap?

RR: Yes. All engineering departments are required to have an industrial advisory board or some kind of feedback from the customer. And I think in the industrial advisory boards, industry from my experience is that the industrial advisory boards are often led by the head of the academic department, not by the industrial advisory board. So, I think it would be nice to have the investor advisory board, have a larger collective voice giving back as to what the issues are and how things could be fixed. Now, there's certainly industry hire students for coops, and some of the major industry players have summer schools for faculty to understand and learn issues like safety, design.

So, I think there's a lot of things that we could do. There's a consortium of industry that support graduate programs. I think there's a lot of things that industry is doing and can continue to do: supplying speakers for seminars and professional student groups, after-school meetings where they’re bringing in the speakers, opening up their industry sites, their plans to facilities for tours by students. So, there's a lot of things that we can do that would help reveal the transition, the changes to it. So, I think there's a lot of the things we can do.

AD: Well, is there anything else? Any other tactics that you kind of see for ideas you have for how else we can fill this gap?

RR: So, I don't think we can ever fill the gap or close the gap in lots of discussions about this. I know this. One of my vice presidents when I first started working was invited by the American Chemical Society to talk about the transition, the gap. That was back in 1969. So, it's been going on and it's been recognized ever since. And I've been on a lot of society committees and I don't think we can ever close the gap. I think for efficiency in education, you just have to teach a particular way. Students are going to be in the youth culture but I think we can bridge the gap, narrow the gap by doing lots of things.

And I think the main way to do it would be for industry to have a voice, a collective voice, through industry societies, industry institutions, industry collaborations to the people who are in charge of education, the regents, the accreditation boards. You can't go back to the professor and say, "Here's a problem. I want you to teach differently," to professors in an environment and they get rewarded for doing certain things. Demonstrating learning effectiveness with the students is one of them, but that's a very minor one. The way professors get rewarded, tenure, promotion, is through bringing in research funding and getting research papers published. So, if you tell the professor, "You need to change what you're doing in the classroom," the professor is going to say, "But that's not what my job description is."

So, you can't go back to the professor or the department head and say, "Make these changes." The department head is going to say, "But the dean rates my department on how much money I bring in." "U.S. News” and “World Report" rates our university by how much research funding we can bring in. And so the whole game, the owners of the university systems have a set of rules. And we need to go to the very top state legislatures, the U.S. government, the accreditation boards in order to get the criteria changed. So, don't go back to the professor and say, "You need to be teaching this in your classroom instead of that." It's not going to work.

AD: Right. We mentioned at the top how you worked with new hires when you were in industry to help them get up to speed. I'm presuming that that's one great way for those in industry to kind of fill the gap within their organizations. But how would you suggest that industry managers train or better equip their staff that's struggling with the gap?

RR: Students come out with fundamental skills. But I think most of what we teach in the university is relevant and useful. Looking back, there were a lot of courses I hated when I was at the university. English was one of them. But after graduating, I realized how important sentence structure was, transitions between sentences was, and even the poetry course where I learned what metaphor was. Once I got out, I realized that I used metaphors constantly in trying to understand how molecules are behaving. So even the English courses, I felt, in retrospect, were very useful.

So, I think a lot of what we teach in the college is useful. But there's no way we can teach what every person needs for their 40-year career, technical career, and their 60-year after that lifetime, after college, graduation. There's no way we can teach everything. So, there's a lot of learning that has to happen. Some of the major industries have their own colleges, and they send people for their own internal training courses for a week every six months or so to learn the essentials that they need for that job, and I think that's important. But the gap that I'm talking about is not the technical knowledge gap but it's the way gap. It's the way students are because of their environment and the transition they have to make to the new environment.

So, I think the best way to do this, and this is what I ended up doing when I was working in industry, is to have mentor-type programs. And, as I said, I took on six of the new engineers. And every Friday afternoon for an hour I would have a discussion group with them about these aspects of the transition as to what life was like different between the university. The freedom of a student in addressing the way they want to be or judging the way they want to be is different from what you're permitted to do in industry. So, there's so much more than just the technical skills. It's the whole way of being.

And I don't like the word maturity because it's not that the students are immature, but they just haven't made the transition to the professional world yet. And it's more than just professionalism. It is skills. It is soft skills. It's an awareness of what the criteria for performance is. There's a lot of it. So, I think it's very important for industry to mentor new hires, to have a senior person or a first-line supervisor and work with them. But it's not so like just getting the calculations right. It is the whole aspect of how do you be successful in industry? So, I think not every first-line supervisor has the inclination, the understanding to do this. I think industry needs to find people who are willing to be mentors and have them coach the new hires.

AD: That's great advice and overall some great insights. Russ, thank you again for joining us today and kind of filling us in on the academic practice gap, how we got here, and what we can do to maybe not get rid of it but kind of shrink it if we can.

RD: Accelerate it.

AD: It was a pleasure.

RR: Yeah, accelerate the transition or narrow the gap. Yes. Yes. And I think there's lots we can do. think it's important. I think it's a major impact on the U.S. economy if you just look at engineers and it's more it is so much bigger than just engineers. It's education, academics in general. Anyway, I greatly appreciate the invitation, Amanda. This was fun for me. And I hope this message does some good.

AD: I'm sure it will. Thank you, again. And, hopefully, we won't have to keep on talking about this topic too much longer. But, hopefully, if we still are we'll have you on again soon.

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