Engineering Excellence: CofC and STEM Businesses Look to Bridge Regional Skills Gap

December 12, 2019

Takeaways

By 2022, the region's engineering and production/mechanical sectors will grow by 10.2% and 17.9%, respectively.
48% of CofC students indicating an interest in enrolling in a new engineering degree program were female.

One of the most iconic landmarks in the city of Charleston, South Carolina is the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, an imposingly beautiful construct engineered to connect the town of Mount Pleasant to the downtown area of Charleston. Commonly known as “The Bridge”, the overpass is relatively young, however, there is no doubt that it is among the state’s most well engineered pieces of infrastructure. 

By 2020, one of the city’s higher education institutions, in partnership with some of the city’s major STEM businesses, will look to make a bridge of their own to address a skills gap that is prominent across the country. In the fall of 2020, the College of Charleston (CofC) will officially introduce its Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering degree program after being approved by the state’s Commission on Higher Education this summer. 

According to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Talent Demand Study Update, jobs in the region’s engineering sector and production and mechanical sector will grow by 10.2% and 17.9%, respectively, from now until 2022. President of CofC, Andrew Hsu, echoed this statistic earlier this year saying the demand for engineers “is far outpacing the labor supply”. With no other Systems Engineering programs currently offered in South Carolina, this program will be an opportunity to produce regional talent to meet the needs of Charleston’s prominent STEM businesses. 

During the proposal process for this degree program, companies that employ a large number of engineers in the Charleston area, such as Boeing, Bosch, and Volvo, among many others, were quick to show their support. While executives endorsed the proposal, the college called upon employees of the supporting companies to serve as members of an industry task force that constructed the curriculum of the program, to not only give it credibility, but also validity. 

The engagement between two primary workforce development stakeholders, the combination of knowledgeable industry members and collegiate faculty driven to provide degrees with high academic quality, allowed for a well-rounded proposal to be created with its incorporation of multiple perspectives from experienced professionals.

Considerably the most significant part of this degree program that looks to improve and progress the STEM workforce of the region, is its dedication to educating more female engineers.

This year, 64% of CofC’s student population is female, a promising indicator that a majority of the students who will join the Systems Engineering program will be female. Even more promising, in a survey of potential CofC students, 700 respondents indicated that they would be interested in enrolling in an engineering program, 48% of those respondents were female. In an industry predominantly consisting of male employees, the development of this program emphasizes promotion of women in STEM to progress both the regional and national workforce into the future.

As the Chamber Foundation’s Senior Vice President Cheryl Oldham has written, employers need to have more engagement when it comes to addressing skills gaps

When a worker’s skills are more aligned to the needs of the market, they are more quickly hired, they are more valuable to the employer, and they are better positioned for future promotion.

The partnership between CofC and the prominent STEM businesses in the Charleston area is the perfect example of the benefits of public-private approaches to skills gaps. The benefits of the collaboration are clear: 

  • By participating in the development of curriculum, employers can be confident in the knowledge and skills students possess and will bring to the workforce.
  • Because no Systems Engineering degree program previously existed in the state, human capital will soon be developed locally. Thus, employers will decrease the cost of recruiting out of state employees.  
  • Developing an engineering program at a higher education institution that has a predominantly female population is the perfect environment to encourage and prepare more women to join the next generation of STEM. 

Preparing a new era of STEM professionals in the Charleston area will take time, but luckily, this partnership has all of the right tools to succeed in the long-term. When the first group of Systems Engineering students graduate in 2024, the hope is the results of this collaboration will influence more workforce stakeholders in the region to develop their own bridges to close skills gaps. Until then, the next wave of stakeholders and students will just have to cross those bridges when they get there.