Thought Leadership

Engineering curriculum’s role in shrinking the skills gap

By Dora Smith

Companies are having significant difficulties filling open engineering and manufacturing positions. They’ve experienced a rise in open positions over the past decade, and the demand to fill these positions is also on the rise. The big problem is that many of these positions won’t be filled because candidates applying for them don’t have the skills these companies want or need.

Leaving these positions unfilled has significant consequences for who will lead the global economy. Why so many of these positions are still open, and why there’s such a gap between what companies need and the skills candidates have, is the focus of our series.

In part one, we discussed what’s contributing to this growing engineering skills gap. Here, we look in more detail about how engineering curriculum must change to create graduates who can fill the global skills gap.

Engineering curriculum and the digital enterprise

The digital enterprise will require employees who have new, emerging skills that combine traditional theory with digital technology, but often today’s engineering curriculum doesn’t reflect that. 

CIMData_Siemens_Engineering Curriculum.pngCIMdata recently released research findings in a white paper titled “Are Students Real-World Ready?”. The figure above notes the broad range of topics covered but with a bias toward mechanical CAD.We saw the same when we recently visited a university’s engineering department and spoke with students about their projects. As the students told us about their projects, we learned that they essentially focused on getting the immediate job in front of them done, but few thought about the whole lifecycle of their project or product.

We challenged them to think bigger. We shared how companies create increasingly complex products with thousands or hundreds of thousands of components that can’t be tracked in a simple Excel sheet. They need comprehensive PLM products to track all of those components, and to simulate and virtually test each product before it’s built to ensure products get to market faster than the competition. Also, beyond the technologies, they need to recognize PLM as a way of working.

This was eye opening to the students, and it makes a good point about the experience many students lack in university today.

How engineering curriculum should evolve

Real-world experience needs to be a central tenet of engineering curriculum, and there should be an emphasis on multi-year projects and PLM implementation.

Some schools have been pioneers in applying PLM as a mindset and integrating the latest industry methodologies and technologies. But much of the curriculum in today’s engineering schools looks much the same as it did 20-30 years ago. It is based on what’s always been taught in drafting classes – for example, mechanical CAD or documenting product design. There’s little to no focus on the challenges of realizing or optimizing products for customer use, and students aren’t working in a digital twin domain.

Many schools still take an “old school” approach to their engineering curriculum: they teach theory first, but wait until the last year or two of the program to begin working with real-world applications. Today’s core engineering curriculum structure is essentially the same as it was 30 years ago, including short-term Capstone projects. Capstone projects provide good hands-on opportunities, but one or two semesters isn’t nearly enough experience for success in today’s engineering landscape. 

These projects often are standalone individual instead of yearlong team projects, so students don’t learn how to work in teams over an extended period of time. Companies creating complex products frequently tell us that they need their employees to have solid communication and problem-solving skills so they can be successful in these complex projects.

CIMdata recently released its research findings on what academia needs to do to create engineering graduates who leave their higher education with the skills employers want. Its research emphasized how education needs to expand its views on PLM. Rather than seeing PLM as a CAD tool for designing products, this curriculum should focus on “PLM’s ‘big picture’ with more attention on how PLM applies across and supports entire product lifecycle processes where information is not primarily geometry.”

As digitalization pushes us toward the next Industrial Revolution, this waiting period will be detrimental to students and employers alike. The next generation of products will require the next generation of engineers to understand mechanical, electrical and automation systems.

But most academic programs are in silos. There’s too little overlap between disciplines, so students aren’t getting the cross-discipline experience they need to prepare for work in digital enterprises. They need to know how to use mechanical, thermal, electrical, electronic and embedded software design capabilities on a single integrated platform.

This lines up with CIMdata’s findings, which stated that PLM education needs to move beyond engineering techniques and capabilities to have a true cross-disciplinary impact, but there’s a large gap in students’ knowledge and understanding of PLM. Students of business and operations strategies need PLM-based information, and they need to be PLM literate to help them better understand product development processes and how to support them with project management and marketing programs.

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What about funding? There’s another big obstacle getting in the way of changing engineering curriculum: funding.

Nate Hartman, director of the PLM Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, has spoken about this obstacle. Many universities have shifted funding priorities to classroom education instead of practical training in their engineering programs, and this priority doesn’t align with what industries need. A lot of practical engineering curriculum has been abandoned so universities train students to go to graduate school rather than go straight to work. Students wait even longer to gain much-needed, valuable experience.

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While the strategy to push students into graduate programs may be monetarily beneficial to universities in the short-term, it’s extremely harmful in the long-run. Having a workforce that isn’t adequately educated or trained to use required tools and applications will only add to the engineering skills gap in the global workforce.

In fact, CIMdata’s research showed the measures used to gauge PLM education success. Employability wasn’t one of them. The report recommended that funding should shift to funding research and training engineers, with ultimate success measures being “how well and how quickly students can perform and contribute once they enter the industrial world.”

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Hartman argues that there needs to be a change to the proportion of the curriculum that focuses on education to include more practical training and engineering technology, and he’s right. If academia wants to help students prepare for life after university, they need a massive overhaul to their engineering curriculum.

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This isn’t the first time there’s been talk of overhauling engineering education. In 1955, the Grinter Report was released and evaluated engineering education. Among other things, the report call for “an integrated study of engineering analysis, design, and engineering systems for professional background, planned and carried out to stimulate creative and imaginative thinking, and making full use of the basic and engineering sciences.”

However, the first draft of the Grinter Report included a recommendation to separate technology education from core engineering curriculum. Despite the fact that American education was pouring money into science and technology programs as a response to the beginnings of the Cold War and the Space Race, the recommendation was removed from the final draft: the report’s creators didn’t believe universities were ready to make that dramatic of a change.

Universities may not have been ready to make that dramatic of a change more than 60 years ago, but they must make that change now if they want their graduates to succeed in the digital enterprise.

The task certainly isn’t easy, but universities have a unique opportunity here.

They can partner with different industry leaders to identify and include the best concepts, practices and tools for their new curriculum so they can give their students the skills sets they need for success in their post-university careers.

Siemens PLM Software is invested in finding the best possible ways to accomplish this. Our company has been working to create engineering curriculum and support software to help educators create a supply of qualified PLM practitioners who will thrive in a digital future.

This concludes part two of our series on how academia can play a role in shrinking the engineering skills gap. In part three, we discuss how Siemens PLM is offering support to universities so they’re capable of creating graduates who can thrive in the digital enterprise. In the meantime, please download the white paper containing CIMdata’s findings on higher education’s role in shrinking the skills gap.

Note: Research for the CIMdata’s whitepaper was sponsored by Siemens PLM Software. 

About the author
Dora Smith is the senior director of the global academic program for Siemens PLM Software, a business unit of Siemens Digital Factory Division. Under Dora’s leadership, the global academic program is now a company-wide strategic initiative for the company. The program empowers the next generation of digital talent through project-based learning, STEM competitions and industrial strength software and curriculum to support more than 1 million students and more than 3,000 institutions worldwide. Dora is an accredited business communicator with more than 20 years of experience. Previously, she held executive management positions at CAD Potential (now part of Tata Technologies), where she developed the company’s first academic and certification programs. Prior to that, she directed the Unigraphics Users Group (now PLM World) an independent, not-for-profit organization supporting the engineering community. She also served as president on the board of directors of IABC St. Louis. Dora earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master’s degree in business administration from Washington University.

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