Big industry, including automotive, is complaining loudly about the job that universities are doing in preparing future engineers. They claim a canyon-sized deficiency exists they call the "competency gap."

Graduates may be future Ketterings or Fords when it comes to the guts or the production of an automobile, but they have a serious problem. They don't know how to talk about it, write about it, or work up a presentation about it.

In response, the 65,000-strong Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) has launched a national effort to shorten or even close the gap. The kickoff is a $1.7 million grant to nine universities that have come up with a major shift in curricula.

The word went out to 112 schools, but only nine came up with acceptable plans. Participating with the Dearborn, MI, based group is the National Science Foundation of Washington, DC.

The communications gap ranks among the top - if not the highest - priorities that command immediate attention. SME is attacking the issue through the universities, K-12 elementary grades and life-long learning among engineers in industry.

"All three areas are important, but we chose to attack the college level," says Philip Trimble, SME executive director and general manager. "Our SME Foundation has a long history of making grants to universities to set up manufacturing engineering curriculum. We literally had to invent a degree in it. It is still not widely acclaimed."

The emphasis has shifted from grants for degrees to a vigorous program to close the competency gap among graduate engineers. Mr. Trimble says several studies have identified deficiencies in education, but little has been accomplished on a "voluntary" basis.

"Nobody was solving anything because a voluntary plan won't work. When was the last time you saw an academic do anything voluntarily?" he says. "If we were going to close the gap, we felt we better give the schools some motivation, and the universal motivator is money."

How did SME learn that the gap exists? The automotive, aerospace, electronics and other industries complained. Betty Anderson, director of education relations for General Motors Corp., bluntly expresses her concern.

"Technical proficiency obviously is a given. But the engineer in these times has to be able to communicate, has to be able to work in teams. Business today does not operate in a vacuum or under smokestacks. New engineers need to have a cultural appreciation of people in other countries," she says.

"Ten years ago American industry did not recognize the rest of the world was out there. Engineers should have some knowledge of global business. Students need non-technical education. They should be able to take courses in liberal arts, for example," she adds.

GM is not alone in its concern. Automakers and suppliers are beginning a number of educational initiatives, many of them through schools and universities, designed to spark interest in math and science among young people.

Electronics giant Siemens Corp. recently launched a program to dole out $1 million a year in scholarships and awards to students and high schools because the company struggles to find qualified engineers, particularly software engineers. Siemens President and CEO Albert Hoser says he is "deeply concerned about the competitiveness of our workforce" around the world.

At the federal level, the Department of Energy (DOE) is developing a program for college graduate students to concentrate their studies in advanced automotive technology. Ten universities are receiving $200,000 as part of the Graduate Automotive Technology Education (GATE) program, which coincides with U.S. automakers' Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle.

It's not enough for engineers to be competitive with their peers at home. They also have to match their foreign counterparts in skill and experience.

Robert Oswald, president, chairman and CEO of German-owned Robert Bosch Corp., sees significant differences in the way American and European students are prepared for careers in engineering.

In the U.S., engineers can graduate with a four-year bachelor's degree and be on the job by age 22, and some will continue studying toward master's degrees. In Europe, he says, many engineers do not take their first full-time jobs until they receive their doctorate degrees, usually around 28 or later.

So while Mr. Oswald sees Europeans as having a superior formal education, Americans have the advantage of several years of valuable on-the-job training.

Even though they take different routes, engineers from the U.S. and Europe reach the same plateau in terms of their abilities, Mr. Oswald says.

"By the time we look at people in their early to mid-30s, we don't see a substantial difference in insight or in technical ability between a European or U.S. engineer," he says.

How do automotive engineers rate the current education system for engineers?

The 21st annual engineering survey conducted by Ward's Auto World (see story, p. 58) found that 50% of OEM respondents and 44% of supplier respondents believe today's engineering graduates are entering the workforce with good mechanical and electronics skills. And about 90% of respondents from both groups agree that companies should require continuing education for senior engineers.

But when asked simply if engineering schools are graduating students who are well prepared for careers in the auto industry, 36% of supplier respondents agreed that they are, while the same number disagreed. About 47% of OEM respondents agreed with the statement, while 34% disagreed.

In a recent study of the competency gap, SME set up a dozen workshops with corporate executives. Mr. Trimble says a major objective was to force academia and industry to talk together. His opinion: "That may have been a reason for the gap in the first place. They simply were not talking to each other."

SME encourages the universities to come in with an industry associate for the success of the program. A school with a business partner has a far better opportunity to receive a grant.

Michigan Technological University, far up in the state's Upper Peninsula town of Houghton, is one of the nine favored applicants. It is tied in with General Motors, and students get "hands on" exposure.

Professor Marvin McKimpson considers the school's new curriculum, starting only this spring, a radical departure from the past. The program will have 40 students divided into teams, like at a company, to design, develop, manufacture and market an imaginary product.

The SME grant to Michigan Tech is $170,000, and the school gets $100,000 in matching funds from companies such as GM, John Deere and Johnson Controls Inc.

The University of Southern California and California State at Los Angeles have a joint program under a $270,000 grant. "We are using the case study approach like a business school," says Prof. S. Stan Settles of USC. "We took the class to a Toyota truck plant, and Boeing is just 40 minutes away."

University officials concur that technology is progressing rapidly, and it is difficult for college and industry engineers to remain current. "Universities cannot meet all the needs of employers," Prof. Settles argues.

"We are not in that business. We are in the education business, and we are trying to build a solid base. Communication skills come up very high in the competency gap," he says. "We think we are doing a good job, but we see an opportunity to do better. The situation is serious, but on the flip side there is a serious opportunity."

Women also are showing increasing interest in engineering. Prof. Settles reports that men outnumber women in his freshman class by only one.

Up the California coast at San Jose State University, the curriculum begins in the high schools under the university's guidance. Neil A. Ibrahim, associate vice president for research and graduate studies, reports some 200 students in nine area high schools can earn a certificate to go on to community college or a university.

The emphasis at San Jose State, in the shadow of Silicon Valley, is on software engineering with a manufacturing emphasis. Importantly, the students must work in industry for two summers. The school has been able to arrange jobs through association with IBM, Lockheed and New United Motor Mfg. Inc., the GM-Toyota plant in Fremont, CA. The SME grant is $167,000.

At Utah State University in Ogden, John Gershenson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, says a $126,000 grant supported by another $900,000 in corporate matching funds "started a ball rolling that has been quite incredible."

The program has a strong supporter in the Western Governors University, a group of governors that gives out degrees to youngsters who have earned competencies in classrooms or through hands-on experiences.

"Student interest is booming," Mr. Gershenson says. "We see ourselves as a supplier like any other industry. Our customers are companies who want our students who are doing fantastically - getting great jobs, great salaries and enjoying great choice."

At supplier Dana Corp., President and CEO Joseph Magliochetti says he's pleased with the quality of engineers his company is hiring. Dana, of Toledo, OH, uses a technical resource park linked to manufacturing sites around the world for hands-on training for entry-level engineers.

"We'll have 10 to 20 bright young engineers on the bench waiting for assignment on the main line, but while they're on the bench, they are working on significant projects where collaboration is emphasized," Mr. Magliochetti says. "We've kept the pipeline filled for the last six to eight years."

The training lasts six to 18 months, and Dana wants the new recruits to have a hand in new products as they are being developed.

When Dana launched its plant in Curitiba, Brazil, to build a first-ever rolling chassis for the Dodge Dakota pickup, young engineers at Dana's technical resource park played a role in the design and development, as well as simulating plant equipment.

"We had the entire design simulated before we put the first brick in place," Mr. Magliochetti says.

Bradley University is one of a few schools with undergraduate and graduate degrees in manufacturing engineering, according to Prof. Abe Nisanci. The SME grant is $250,000 for the program. The Peoria, IL, school is enhancing its curricula with course modules. One module under communications illustrates how to make better reports and presentations.

Another module emphasizes ceramic manufacturing technology, a concept Toyota is considering for engine blocks, says Prof. Nisanci.

California State University at Los Angeles offers five manufacturing courses with most of the students working in industry, especially with the Boeing Co.

"We consider the competency gap very serious for industry and for academia," says Prof. Tuncer Cebeci. "The greatest gap is communications. Today, industry not only wants technical people, but they want them to be aware of the costs and be able to sell what they produce."

Polytechnic University of Brooklyn, NY, received a $200,000 grant. Prof. Charles Bartlett recalls that in bygone days the focus on engineering education in the classroom had been difficult.

"They did homework problems, took an exam and got a grade," he says. "Problems were not fully defined, didn't have a single answer. They got out in industry and were stuck, had a tough time to get going. Now, we work with a local company with the class assigned projects for that firm. We share time between the classroom and the company working on one or more projects."

Mr. Trimble of SME says the initial grants are only the first phase of the gap-closing initiatives. More funds are on the way.

He acknowledges that prestigious engineering schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon are not involved.

"We sent requests to all of the prominent schools, and maybe they feel they know how to do it on their own," he says. "I'm guessing they thought the grants were not big enough because they get big grants from lots of places. Or maybe they decided it just wasn't worth their while."

He says SME also went to other engineering societies for input. "We did not get an enthusiastic response. I'm not blaming them. They have other priorities."

While the SME big guns are trained on the university level, the society is not neglecting its life-long learning program for engineers on the job. A five-year pilot that began in 1996 provides a self-evaluation test of where the engineer stands in his or her career.

"We can't keep a watch on thousands of engineers in the work place," says Mr. Trimble. "We are providing them with the means to develop their own learning program. In addition to this assessment tool, we are developing sources like the Internet where they can get information and instruction."

The self-evaluation measures how an engineer handles skill improvement in specific areas, how he is continuing his education and how employers are supporting these efforts.

Michael Wright, SME's life-long learning specialist, admits the program is not ideal for everyone, but says the early targets are engineers in their early to mid-40s. Ongoing training is a priority in industry.

"Companies are spending huge sums in the manufacturing sectors for educational training," Mr. Wright says. "SME does not keep economic records but I've heard of a figure of about $50 billion a year. One electronics supplier spends $800 million annually on its own people just to stay competitive in the market place."

At the elementary school level, SME is "just trying to get kids interested in engineering" with a program called "Manufacturing is Cool," Mr. Wright says.

At the high school level, Mr. Trimble says he believes advisors are steering pupils away from manufacturing engineering. He says it is not deliberate - they just don't know how interesting and rewarding such a career can be.

"Everything you see in the media now is how exciting it is to be a lawyer, a doctor or lots of other careers. But when did you last see anything featured about engineering?" Mr. Trimble says.

He concedes that manufacturing engineering is a runner-up to design and electrical engineering. "Some look at manufacturing engineering as a career you take when you can't succeed at anything else. That's not very rewarding, and we are trying to turn that around.