Last fall, 56 students enrolled in the inaugural mechanical engineering program at University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie. The program is the first of three new undergraduate engineering programs to debut in the Momentum West region.
The additional degree programs came about with the formation of the Northwest Wisconsin Engineering Consortium, which brought together the region’s three universities – UW-Stout, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and University of Wisconsin-River Falls – to work collaboratively on meeting the area’s demand for engineers.
“As we listened to our employers it became apparent that we needed these programs,” said UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer.
Before approving the consortium’s request for the additional programs, the University of Wisconsin-System Board of Regents verified the demand.
“According to the study positions, there are almost 600 unfilled in mechanical engineering just in northwest Wisconsin,” said Meyer.
Support from Momentum West and other economic development groups in the region, along with input from numerous private sector businesses including OEM Fabricators, Phillips-Medisize and 3M further validated the consortium’s claims.
“Quite frankly,” said Meyer, “without that kind of advocacy and commitment, I don’t know if we would have gained approval.”
The new degree programs complement each university’s strength. Stout’s bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering is the first to welcome students, with 80 second-year applicants already enrolled at the end of 2015. Stout currently graduates 500-plus students annually from its existing manufacturing, computer and plastics engineering programs.
“This quarter of the state is in dire need of these graduates,” said Meyer. “We want to grow them locally and hope that they stay in the region, and that will be a good contributor to economic development here.”
Degree programs in material science engineering (UW-Eau Claire) and agricultural engineering (UW-River Falls) kick off in the fall of 2016.
UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said his institution’s material science graduates are already filling positions usually filled by engineers.
“But without the engineering credential, it has an impact on their salary,” he added.
UW-Eau Claire has forged strong working relationships with area employers, who utilize the campus’s state-of-the-art equipment. Schmidt said interest by employers in setting up internships and furthering collaboration has nearly tripled since adding the engineering designation. “So even though we are only making a modest change in the curriculum to give the engineering degree credential, it makes a difference.”
An agricultural engineering degree is a natural next step for UW-River Falls, known for its existing agricultural engineering technology program. “We worked with regional businesses and identified the need for agricultural engineering graduates,” said River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen.
Agricultural equipment manufacturer Oxbo International Corp. in Clearlake, Wis., is one of the companies expressing interest in the engineering grads.
“They currently hire a number of our ag engineering technology graduates,” said Van Galen. “But they are looking for graduates with that higher level of skill and knowledge.”
While the engineering designation gives students an edge wherever they land, the hope is to keep the talent in northwest Wisconsin. Schmidt added, “Industry is telling us they want employees who will not only understand how to do it, but have the creativity, because engineering in the end is about solving problems.”
The consortium’s work to address the need for engineers in the northwest is an effort that is likely to be duplicated in other regions of the state. Van Gallen noted, “It’s an example of collaboration that makes good use of resources and serves students.”