With Foxconn arrival, state universities try to build the bridge between engineering and business
Laura Mahoney / The Daily Cardinal

The School of Engineering and the Wisconsin School of Business are looking for ways to collaborate after the announcement that Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, would open a facility in Wisconsin.

With Foxconn arrival, state universities try to build the bridge between engineering and business

It’s no secret that engineering has been touted as one of the most in-demand fields. Now, engineering schools throughout the UW System have another reason to expand their programs—Foxconn.

In July, it was announced that Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, would invest $10 billion into Wisconsin’s economy to build a new plant in the southeastern part of the state. Company officials said it could create up to 13,000 jobs.

After the announcement, several institutions began making pitches to Foxconn for funding in exchange for curriculum designed to produce engineers for the company. One of them was UW-Madison.

Dean Ian Robertson of the College of Engineering said industry partners and recruiters want engineers with business skills. At other university programs, business and engineering students take a set of common courses together, he said. As part of the program, students usually participate in a full-year senior design project, allowing for better communication skills.

“The results from programs at other institutions [are] very positive, more job offers for both groups of students, higher starting salaries, and faster promotion,” Robertson said in an email. “This is the type of course I would like to see us develop at UW-Madison.”

Currently, the UW-Madison School of Business offers programs for non-business majors, but Robertson said he thinks there could be more offered for engineering students.

While he said business school Dean Anne Massey is also interested in forging stronger ties with engineering, the two still have to meet.

But for Paul Jadin, president of the Madison Regional Economic Development, an economic development agency for the Madison area, educators should also take other companies’ needs into account outside of just Foxconn.

“I would not suggest that UW-Madison needs to retool its engineering program just to be more competitive for projects like Foxconn,” Jadin said. “My point is, don’t just assume Foxconn is the only attraction effort the state’s had and everything else has to be driven based on the reasons that they came here because everyone is very, very different.”

Still, with the extra funding universities could receive from Foxconn, UW System schools are looking to make some changes; UW-Platteville, known for its engineering program, is also looking to develop a relationship with the company.

Dr. Philip Parker, assistant dean for outreach and new ventures at UW-Platteville’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science said he thinks the relationship with Foxconn will be “a perfect fit” since the university is already geared towards workforce development.

“Yes, we send some students to grad school, but by and large, we send students—engineers— directly to industry and businesses,” Parker said. “That’s kind of our niche is that I hear over and over that our students are ready to hit the ground running on day one and I think this will be true for Foxconn also.”

Parker said the school hasn’t started planning curriculum around Foxconn yet, but the company did send a list of employment areas that they are specifically interested in.

Existing programs such as the Master’s in Supply Chain Management already satisfy some of Foxconn’s desires and the Industrial Engineering Program is known for having business skills as a core part of the curriculum, Parker said.

“We have many areas that already directly align and our students work for companies like Foxconn anyways,” Parker said. “It’s not a stretch at all to say what we have currently is going to meet many of their needs."

Jadin agrees. UW-Madison’s research reputation was one draw for the company and Jadin welcomes the cross training approach—but it doesn’t necessarily mean the education programs in Wisconsin’s universities need to change, he said.

“Those schools—UW-Madison and UW-Platteville—already have a very high-quality reputation,” Jadin said. “Our graduates in engineering are respected. It’s more about ‘Can we graduate more numbers in order to accommodate businesses that we’re attracting?’ as opposed to saying ‘Somehow we’ve got to find a new way to do things.’”

Even with the interest in Foxconn, Parker said UW-Platteville has been working with a variety of businesses on making changes to the program long before the company’s announcement in July. A new class which Parker said will carry a title similar to “Leadership Competencies for Early Career Engineers” is a prime example.

The class, which will be offered during UW-Platteville’s winter break, was designed in a collaborative process between the school and 20-30 engineers. Educators will focus on behaviors that employers want from workers such as study priorities, communication skills, productivity and self-motivation, Parker said.

“It’s cool because it’s not too often that you actually get to work collaboratively with the industry on designing a class—we work with the industry a ton,” Parker said. “We work with the industries on capsule design projects, on other class projects. We do field trips to industries. So we have a great relationship already, but this is pretty unique to have them at the virtual table designing a class.”

Students will directly connect with engineer supervisors through guest presentations, which Parker said he thinks will help reinforce the importance of the behaviors that are being taught.

“We don’t want to be the ivory tower. We cannot meet the needs of employers unless employers are at the table with us,” Parker said. “We are so focused on workforce development and we can’t say that—we can’t be that—unless we are joined at the hip with industry.”

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