In talking with local companies, one consistent piece of feedback that Marquette University leaders have heard is that new engineering graduates are competent in the technical aspects of the job, but sometimes miss the bigger picture of how their piece fits into the business as a whole.
Rexnord Corp. has seen that play out among its own new hires.
“We hire a bunch of early career engineers, recent grads,” said Joe Hamann, Rexnord’s director of engineering – process sector. “They do great technical work, but their ability to interface with different business functions can sometimes be lacking.”
To address that gap, the Milwaukee-based manufacturer and Marquette partnered four years ago to launch Bridge to Business, a six-day program aimed at teaching early career engineers the business fundamentals of their field. Rexnord has supported the course with an initial $1 million investment in 2016 and is among the companies that have advised Marquette in developing program curriculum.
“We were looking at general opportunities, not just for Rexnord, but across Milwaukee, with how can we get more of our engineering population, specifically those in their early career, more fluent with general business acumen?” Hamann said. “… We saw it as a great opportunity to not only develop our own talent but to strengthen the baseline of early career engineering talent across Milwaukee.”
The program, which recently completed its fourth cohort, familiarizes students with aspects of the business that are outside of their normal purview, such as inventory, logistics management, buyer/supplier relationships, costing, budgeting, project evaluation, marketing, sales and pricing.
The course also focuses on so-called soft skills, like communication style, conflict, negotiation, decision making and presentation skills.
The target audience is engineers who recently graduated from college and have completed co-ops or internships, and those who have up to five years of professional experience working in the field.
Aside from Rexnord, some of the region’s largest employers have helped steer the program, including ABB, Badger Meter, Briggs & Stratton, Direct Supply, Husco International, Kohler Company, Johnson Controls, Modine Corp., Rockwell Automation and We Energies.[caption id="attachment_514844" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Bridge to Business students work on
Program leaders continuously seek feedback from those companies, holding debrief sessions after each cohort to determine which parts of the program to beef up or change.
“Every year it’s a little bit different because we’re constantly tweaking it,” said Kevin Walsh, director of executive education for Marquette.
This year, program leaders reinvented the program to offer it fully online amid the COVID-19 health crisis – a significant challenge for a program that’s designed to be interactive, said Robin Hoke, associate director of executive education for Marquette.
One of the program’s typical team-building exercises, for example, includes a “Marshmallow Challenge,” which involves building a tower structure with uncooked spaghetti and tape to hold a marshmallow.
“You can’t really do that virtually,” Walsh said. “There were a lot of exercises like that that had to be redone.”
Leaders tweaked some of the course topics, bringing in an expert to discuss how COVID-19 had changed supply chain and inventory models. Using Zoom, the program offered “speed dating”-style virtual networking opportunities, a key component of the in-person program.
For many participating businesses, offering professional development opportunities like Bridge to Business serves as a recruitment and retention tool for their high performers.
“This program demonstrates the investment that organizations are making in their human capital skill development, which then contributes to retention and their development and keeping people in southeastern Wisconsin,” Hoke said.
To date, 96 engineers, representing 13 companies, have participated in the program. Of those, more than 20% have been women.
The program also serves to accelerate the upskilling process, helping new employees acquire skills that might otherwise take several years within a company to pick up, Walsh said.
“We see it as a nice opportunity to give that team of higher performing individuals an opportunity to see something a little bit different that can help them accelerate on their development path,” Hamann said. “I think there’s a strong play there on the talent retention piece. Along with the other partner companies that are involved, we see this as a way to look at our bench of existing talent and grow them for the future.”
The final day of the program includes presentations from participants about what they learned and how they plan to apply it. Many have found ways to implement changes within their own contexts, Walsh said. One participant proposed a new pricing model to their product manager. Another admitted to previously “winging” the process of determining safety stock and decided to start using a formula to calculate it moving forward.
“Those are the kinds of things we really want to see where these early career engineers suddenly have an appreciation for how business works and how they impact finance and supply chain and marketing and sales,” Walsh said.
Marquette is exploring other industries that might benefit from the Bridge to Business program, along with the possibility of building additional programs for engineers as they progress in their careers to management roles, Hoke said.
“There are lots of opportunities across industry sectors and we’ve had a lot of people approach us about it and we are in … conversation with our business community partners,” she said. n