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Local college seeks to bridge engineer gap

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Students trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are graduating at a turtle’s pace, while the industry is creating jobs in those fields as fast as a rabbit.

That is how the National Math and Science Initiative is illustrating what they call the “STEM crisis” — or a need to better prepare students for in-demand careers.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows employment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is expected to expand faster than employment in non-STEM occupations through 2020.

But Joe Fuehne, director of Purdue University’s College of Technology locations in Columbus and Greensburg, said schools can churn out as many technology and engineer students as they can — but that will not address the skills gap unless graduates are equipped with leadership and interpersonal skills.

“Manufacturing companies in our region need good leaders,” Fuehne said. “We need to better communicate the importance of leadership to our youth and are working hard to accomplish this.”

That is where Purdue College of Technology comes in, Fuehne said.

The Columbus-based school offers the same degrees as other top-rated engineering colleges, but it also equips graduates with the soft skills necessary to succeed.

Faculty and staff do so through one-on-one interaction possible through an enrollment of about 120 students.

Students learn these skills through the organizational leadership and supervision degree program — which landed Jennifer Wayman a promotion at Cummins upon graduation in May — but the principles permeate all programs on the campus.

It’s part of the Purdue College of Technology’s vision: To change the world by defining and repairing the 21st century technologist.

Fuehne said all it takes is a glimpse at the 21-member Class of 2014 to demonstrate the college is doing just that.

Making community connections

As the world headquarters of Fortune 500 diesel-engine maker Cummins, Columbus has the highest concentration of mechanical engineers in the nation.

It is home to an estimated 31 engineers per 1,000 workers, according to the Columbus Economic Development Board.

About 80 percent of the school’s graduates stay in the area to work for companies such as Cummins, Faurecia, CyberMetrix and the Walesboro-based AK Steel.

“Very few are leaving the area,” he said. “They’re staying here and helping the manufacturing operations. Why does that happen? Personal connections to the community.”

Even locally, he said, there is a demonstrated demand for the technology graduates as evidenced in the Class of 2014:

8 participated in school-to-work internship programs.

6 were offered jobs upon graduation.

5 received a job offer prior to graduation.

2 are currently interviewing for employment.

Wayman was working full time prior to graduation and earned a promotion along with her degree.

She was working at Cummins as a project coordinator in manufacturing information technology systems and taking 4-hour lunches once a week to finish her coursework. Upon graduation, she was promoted to human resources analytics specialist.

“It shows that Cummins values education, and it validates the extra effort,” she said.

But she said the career move would not have been possible if she had not transferred to Columbus from the main campus in West Lafayette.

Enrollment at the

College of Technology is minuscule compared with more than 35,000 who attend Purdue University’s flagship campus.

“I still would have felt lost in the midst of so many other students,” she said.

Fuehne said Wayman’s story is one that demonstrates that Purdue College of Technology is a small campus — but sometimes that is exactly what a student needs to build a big future.

Success story

Wayman thought she had her future figured out when she enrolled in classes at Purdue in West Lafayette as a pre-pharmacy major. She studied advanced biology and chemistry, job-shadowed local pharmacists and attended science camps throughout junior high. She had even spent hours in a part-time job as a pharmacy technician.

“Yet after four semesters and academic probation, I decided I didn’t want to be a pharmacist,” she said.

She said she also did not want to stay at a school with tens of thousands of students.

So she took a year off to participate in the competitive Walt Disney World College Program, where she discovered a new career path.

Wayman said her experiences in the Magic Kingdom aligned perfectly with the organizational leadership and supervision program at Purdue College of Technology.

She interacted with cast members and guests from all over the world, which she would later learn about in her class Leadership in a Global Environment.

She reported to nine managers, all with different leadership styles — a topic that was covered in Leadership Principles.

And she lived with five other girls from across the country, where another course, Conflict Management, came in.

“When the internship drew to a close, I knew I was ready to resume studies within my new major,” Wayman said. “It was time to complete my dream of a college education and make it a reality.”

She could not wait until she got home to get started. She enrolled in classes on the Columbus campus over the phone on the drive home from Florida.

She said individualized attention from school faculty and staff, which was possible because of the small campus size, helped her graduate.

“My professors often went beyond their duty as educators to serve as mentors,” she said. “They took the time to know me as a person and recognized the need to integrate life with school.”

The small classes also helped her get to know her classmates and the wealth of work experience they all brought to the table.

Purdue College of Technology enrolls a mix of traditional college-aged students and nontraditional adult learners, which Fuehne said brings a blend of education and experience into classroom discussions and benefits all students.

“I’m not just a student, I’m not just on the learning end,” Wayman said. “I have something to give, also. I have my own experiences to contribute.”

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