A Skills Gap Exists Between What Colleges are Teaching and What the Technology Industry Needs

The Future of Education panel at the Disruptive Technologies Conference at UT Austin.

By LAURA LOREK
Publisher of Silicon Hills News

A huge gap exists between what colleges are teaching students and what a company like Apple needs, an Apple executive said Thursday.

“I don’t consider myself an expert on education technique, what makes great curriculum or any of that. I’m sort of like a big user of the alphabet,” said Bob Mansfield, senior vice president of technologies at Apple. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1982 with a degree in electrical engineering and spent the last half of his career at Apple.

The gap exists with recent college graduates entering the workforce and not prepared for real life applications of their skills in companies.

“Maybe there is something illustrated in that gap that we need to work on fixing,” Mansfield said.

He spoke on a Future of Education panel Thursday at the University of Texas at Austin’s Disruptive Technologies Conference. About two hundred people attended the conference, held in the new Engineering and Education Research Center at the UT campus. The day-long conference tackled a variety of subjects from autonomous vehicles to applied machine learning and the future of infotainment.

The skills gap for new graduates is an issue UT educators hear all the time and that the way professors teach their students doesn’t necessarily prepare them for the real world, said Jonathan Valvano, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UT.

To an extent, UT needs to provide a structured program and classes for students because they don’t know what they want or need, Valvano said. But UT can do better by breaking down the walls between departments, he said.

“We all have our own curriculum and we’re not allowed to intervene with the mechanical engineers,” he said.

UT Austin is consistently ranked as one of the top ten engineering schools in the country. The quality of the UT Electrical and Computer Engineering students is unbelievable, said Jamie Pennebaker, UT Austin, Department of Psychology. The average SAT score is 1360 and the students enter UT with an average of 30 hours of AP credit, the equivalent of an entire college academic year worth of credit hours.

“They are prepared in a way that students have never been,” he said

The students are extremely technologically savvy and that raises some fundamental questions about how do we teach our kids, Pennebaker said.

The caliber of student at UT is a lot better, they come in more prepared, Mansfield said. And UT can build a machine to crank out really good journeymen engineers that can solve a particular problem but they need to be able to work collaboratively with others in other disciplines to solve problems collectively, Mansfield said. The curriculum background a new employee has at Apple doesn’t define them, he said.

To create engineers prepared for industry, universities need to expose students to the world outside of the classroom to a much higher degree earlier, Mansfield said.

The creative process at a technology company involves liberal arts, human behavior and a wide variety of interests, Mansfield said. Booksmarts alone will not cut it in the corporate world, he said.

“I can work work with the world’s smartest people but I’m no where close to one of them,” Mansfield said. “So I do think there’s a sort of set of certain human behaviors and things like that, that schools have to do more of because if they don’t people are going to come into our company, for example, and struggle for a long time until they learn what makes that work. And it isn’t about their competitiveness with their neighbor or they got the right answer so many years in a row that they don’t know what happens when they don’t get the right answer one time. And they learn how to take risks in spite of the fact that a lot of engineering is about taking all the risk out of everything. I think those are human qualities that have nothing to do with being book smart in engineering.”

In addition, UT needs to start thinking of its students as lifelong learners and provide opportunities for them beyond their degrees, said Nina Huntemann, director of academics and research at edX.

“UT Austin don’t think about the students as just being your students for four years, think about them as being your students forever,” Huntemann said.

Provide them with opportunities, using online tools, to continue to train them so they can stay on top of what industry needs, she said.

“Breaking out of, frankly, degree programs that are defined by x number of credits and x number of years,” she said. “It should be continuous, constant, how can UT and the engineering schools rethink the delivery of education throughout someone’s career.”

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