ants working together to build a bridge

Bridging the skills gap

Many employers still feel that graduates are missing key skills when they leave university. We take a look at some of the ways MathWorks is collaborating with universities to bridge the skills gap between education and industry.

Although students are leaving university with a great degree education under their belt, some employers still feel that many aren’t 100 per cent prepared for life as a real-world employee.

Mathworks works closely with both universities and industry as its computational tools, which include MATLAB and Simulink, are used in both environments. Staff liaise closely with both sectors and feedback from industry has led them to proactively try to bridge the gap that exists between the two.

Great theoretical knowledge, but…

“A lot of the feedback we get from sectors such as aerospace, manufacturing and automotive is that although students have got very good theoretical knowledge of the basic principles, their skills lack in terms of some of the practical aspects of work and they’re unable to join and hit the ground running,” says Coorous Mohtadi, principal application engineer, MathWorks.

Lacking soft skills

Industry feedback also implies that some graduates leave education lacking a number of ‘soft skills’ too.

“Business skills – enterprise and entrepreneurial skills,” highlights Dr John Lanham, of the University of the West of England (UWE). “Many engineering programmes have extensive coverage of aspects such as project management and business accounting etc, but there is some evidence from discussions with industry about companies also seeking students with wider and more strategic business knowledge and skills such as enterprise and innovation awareness. There is also a growing interest from companies for graduates to have knowledge and understanding of green and environmental issues,” he notes.

MathWorks is keen to begin bridging this skills gap and has been collaborating with a number of universities including Oxford, Imperial, Nottingham and UWE in order to help professors teach students the skills required by industry.

Projects and competitions

As well as supporting on-campus use of its tools, one way has been to get involved with a number of projects where students gain experience dealing with problems they’re likely to face in a work environment.

For example, the company works closely with the Cambridge University Eco Racing Team, which led it to become actively involved in the Global Green Challenge, now know as the World Solar Challenge. In this competition students must design and build a car capable of crossing Australia using only solar energy.

But this isn’t the only project MathWorks has been part of. It has also been involved in projects such as the US EcoCAR competition, and the Bloodhound SSC project.

“Students need more hands-on training on real-time systems and updated design/development approaches to address real-world problems when they enter industry,” says Mohtadi. “Such competitions are helping bring learning to life and prepare students for industry as they’re learning real-life skills.”

“They require multi-disciplinary/team based approaches and pose students with real world ‘messy’ problems that don’t easily map into a neat set of equations,” adds Dr Lanham.

Lectures and funding

MathWorks engineers also deliver guest lectures at universities helping to bring theory to life by illustrating how the tools are used in industry. Recently Mohtadi gave a lecture to fourth year students in a department of automotive engineering, which demonstrated how to connect the throttle body to a computer and how you can run tests and experiment on it. This is a job you’re likely to face if work at an automotive company.

The company also funds two PhD students at any given time, giving them experience working for MathWorks and allowing them to work on real projects. For example a current PhD student spent the last summer building models of car suspensions using MathWorks software.

Academia and industry partnership

It is important for academia and industry to work closer together, however we can’t, and shouldn't, expect them to always be on the same page. They both have very different goals, but are continuing to build a relationship where they support each other.

“The biggest ‘education to industry’ gap, as I perceive it, is all about expediency,” says Professor Seamus Garvey from the Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham.

“In university, we rightly challenge students to think things through to the fullest analytical depth and to learn important lessons from every engineering task that they address. In industry the priority is always to develop the product and whilst all learning that is acquired along the way is important, it is normally secondary.

“Tools – software or otherwise- that enable engineers to get a product developed quickly are essential,” he continues. “We try as far as possible to avoid locking in our students to any particular proprietary tools but it is essential to teach some, those that are industry standard. MATLAB is one of a selection that includes LabVIEW, Abaqus and Pro-Engineer to mention but a few. These are more than academic topics for students, they are skills that apply broadly and will continue to be useful in professional life.”

In the end, it’s partnership that is key to success. As industry offers more and more placement opportunities and academia continues to educate using tools found in the workplace, the skills gap can only shrink. But as Professor Garvey highlights, no one side can solve these issues on their own.

“Modern graduates are well prepared for industry and business needs, but in education we have to acknowledge that both parties  - education and industry - will always require evolution and development of the portfolio of skills we develop to meet the changing landscape of modern working life.

“On its own higher education cannot deliver all the outcomes business wants – it has to be a partnership – so its not about bridging the gap – it’s more a question of developing a shared understanding of the skills graduates require and the contribution each party has to achieving this,” he concludes.

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