Despite dramatic changes in the chemical process industries (CPI) over the past few decades, there has been comparatively less evolution in the undergraduate chemical engineering curriculum. In the article “Preparing Chemical Engineering Students for Industry” (pp. 25–28), Joseph Alford and Thomas Edgar challenge universities to do more to better equip chemical engineering students with the skills they need for their future industrial careers.
AIChE’s Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Manufacturing Institute is an example of an organization that is addressing this misalignment through technical education and workforce development programs to train workers in areas that few undergraduate classes address, such as process intensification.
In addition to the need for better industry-academia alignment, another pressing issue looms for our profession: a national shortage of skilled laborers. The construction workers, electricians, plumbers, and plant workers needed to help build and operate our refineries and chemical plants are becoming harder to find.
Although there is a pressing need for skilled laborers in the CPI, the majority of high school seniors eschew technical college or apprenticeship programs for more-traditional four-year degrees. Stan Shoun, President of Ranken Technical College in St. Louis, MO, attributes this trend, in part, to social stigma. “Our society frowns on blue-collar workers,” says Shoun. “Everybody thinks that to be successful, you’ve got to get a four-year degree, and that’s simply not true.”
Many people still associate skilled-labor jobs with students who performed poorly in school. But, to succeed in programs like those offered by Ranken, students must have strong math and reading skills, insists Shoun. And, with the advent of automation in manufacturing facilities, operators must receive more education than they have in the past.
How can we ensure that the skilled laborers and technicians who graduate from technical colleges enter the CPI? “Faced with a skills gap, employers are increasingly working with community colleges to provide students with both the academic education needed to succeed in today’s workforce and the specific hands-on skills to get a job in their companies,” writes Jeffrey Selingo in The New York Times article “Wanted: Factory Workers, Degree Required” (Jan. 30, 2017).
More and more companies are reaping the benefits of partnerships with technical schools. At Ranken, for example, students do real work — including building biotech equipment, performing architectural services, and constructing houses — for many different companies. “These companies are getting a great product at a very reasonable price, but they are also getting a trained, 21st-century workforce for their processes and products,” says Shoun.
Not every student has the desire to pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. However, our profession as a whole can benefit from many other technical career paths. Encouraging students to become our next generation of skilled technicians on the plant floor, and fostering industry-technical college partnerships, may be just as critical as educating the next generation of ChEs.
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