Students at Work: Closing the Industry Skills Gap

The gulf between what employers need from workers and what workers can actually deliver has been growing for years. Educators and industry leaders are doing something about that.

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Near the city of Bondoufle, which lies in the central French region of Île-de-France, a consortium of aerospace engineering companies and research organizations have established a research and teaching center for engineering students called CampusFab.

“CampusFab is a kind of simulator for the factory of the future,” says Valérie Begin, head of industrial skills development with French aircraft and rocket engine manufacturer Safran Group. “It provides training for both students on work-study programs and employees taking continuing education courses. They learn about new production methods based on networked machines, connected objects, additive manufacturing, augmented reality, collaborative robots and more.”

In the United States, nested within the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, there is a similar community of top researchers, corporations and laboratories focused on accelerating innovation where hundreds of students in applied learning positions each year train with multiple tools and technologies needed to execute virtual twin programs for the U.S. military.

At Purdue University, a center for advanced composites established in 2020 gives students experience using tools to develop digital twins of complex composites manufacturing and performance.

Centers likes these and others worldwide are emerging because students and industry leaders agree that many graduates are not ready for real world jobs. They bring educators, students and industry professionals together to accelerate skills training and reduce a worrisome skills gap.

Skills Shortage

India has the most engineering students and engineering schools in the world, producing some 1.5 million graduates a year. Sixty percent of them stay unemployed every year, according to the India Council of Technical Education.

In the United Kingdom, eight out of 10 employers believe graduates are not work-ready for the real-world employment market, according to a survey by the Chartered Management Institute. Nearly nine out of 10 (87 percent) of executives surveyed told a McKinsey Global Survey that they face a skills gap in the workplace.

According to the 2020 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) survey of recent engineering graduates, between 46 percent and 66 percent of respondents reported being inadequately prepared for skills needed in additive manufacturing, digital twin and model-based systems engineering.

“Even when they have a theoretical background, university students often find it difficult to apply that theory to real world problems,” says Safran Group’s Valérie Begin. “Industry 4.0 and the resulting ‘factory of the future’ is developing at a rapid pace. This demands employees who constantly renew their skills so they can master new production tools. Digital skills are now a non-negotiable, but the new generation does not seem adequately prepared.”

Factory of the Future

Educators and industry leaders around the world are connecting the dots between classroom theory, product, processes, resources and manufacturing by creating full virtual factories accessible to the classroom to plan, simulate and operate accurate virtual production systems while supporting real-world problems and complexity. Students learn how to create efficient, sustainable factories of the future.

CampusFab, Wichita State and Purdue, for example, established their programs on the Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE platform, which has been around for many years across several global industry sectors but was just introduced in universities in 2021 specifically to address the industry skills gap. 

“Job and competency planning and training co-built by industry and universities can be incredibly effective at closing the skills gap,” says Kerenza Harris, senior associate at interdisciplinary architecture firm Morphosis who teaches at Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arch), which also uses the 3DEXPERIENCE platform. “I want to put graduates in front of a problem without them panicking. Even though they may not know the answer to the problem or even the tools or experience to solve it, I want to see a methodological approach to solving it in a rational way. Flexibility and adaptability are, to me, the most crucial skills and I would hire people that seem the most ready to approach those problems.”

Pivotal Skills

This interdisciplinary, collaborative, digitally enabled approach to training that relies heavily on virtualization has fostered the emergence of a new education and training concept that focuses on “pivotal skills.” Many schools and universities are working to close the skills gap with more programs teaching “foundational skills” for fast-emerging subfields in industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, fluids engineering, electrical engineering, electronics engineering, software engineering, project management, robotics engineering, and NC machining.

However, pivotal skills train students essential disciplines for collaboration, modeling, simulation and data management which are underpinned by virtual world technologies. This engineering approach is used in such disciplines as formulation management, materials science, eco-design, data engineering, data analysis, mechatronics, AR/VR engineering, data science, lean management, digital logistics, collaborative innovation, digital supply chain, virtual twin operation, virtual twin creation, additive manufacturing, composites engineering and manufacturing, and sustainable engineering.

This platform-based approach to research and learning generates new tools to prepare students with relevant future-ready skills that benefit all stakeholders, particularly when students and engineering professionals work closely together on real-world customer problems and complex manufacturing processes that can transform industry.

“Together we will advance the digital enterprise,” says Byron Pipes, the John L. Bray Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Purdue University. “We’ll do this by developing the human talent essential to this new paradigm … to predict phenomena that are understood today only by empirical experiences.”

Educators have a growing portfolio of digital technologies, apps, learning content and community they can deploy to improve skills training for such applications as design, simulation, automation and control of part production, tooling, machining, validation, robotic assembly, cost and waste reduction, test innovation with simulated interactions and optimization, and workplace and product designs that consider human factors and ergonomic requirements.

What is emerging is a learning ecosystem that lets students gain first-hand-experience on current projects outsourced to universities by industry, but on design, simulation and manufacturing applications and processes they are likely to use in the future. Educators point out that industry representatives can best support this learning path by encouraging a broad, generic evolution of knowledge, and not just knowledge of their own specific needs.

“This is required to create academy training paths that meet industry needs,” says Harris. “I think this works perfectly—it gives the teaching a certain level of relevance as we’re able to pull from our own experiences. Job and competency planning and training co-built by industry and universities can be incredibly effective at closing the skills gap.”