“I work with a whole bunch of really miserable engineers because they thought they were going to be working on the next space shuttle, but they’re really just busy designing screws for dishwashers,” he told me.
I took his advice to heart.
I chose the University of Cincinnati because at the time, it was one of the very few schools that required co-op experience over the course of study as part of an engineering degree. The degree took five years instead of four because of the required job exposure, but that extra year was well worth it—I got valuable exposure to manufacturing, packaging, industrial design, and testing. It’s where I learned not merely how to weather six restructures in a company, but that I truly love testing and product development. During my studies, I learned there was a service gap in the market for mechanical testing, which eventually led me to launch Empirical Testing Corp. 20 years ago.
Those were lessons no textbook could teach.
In simple terms, I think of an engineer as someone who knows what tools are in the toolbox and how to use them. You’re gathering tools in school, of course, but it’s not until you’re on a job that those tools are put to the test.
I’m living proof of the power of experiential learning. That’s why I was happy to connect with Chris Yakacki, associate professor from the department of mechanical engineering for the University of Colorado-Denver. He also understands how critical that workplace exposure is when it comes to recruiting more bright young minds and bringing ambitious ideas to the medical device field.
“I think a lot of times, there can be a disconnect [between industry and academia],” Yakacki said. “Students, they go to college for one reason and one reason only—to get a job. They don’t go for the degree, they want to get a job. From an institution standpoint, you have to understand where are the jobs, what are the needs for the people hiring.”
Yakacki and his colleagues are working to bridge that common gap.
“I think this has to be forefront,” Yakacki said. “The interaction should be there. It shouldn’t be two separate worlds. There needs to be a bridge between academia and industry.”
From personal experience, I know it can be hard to track down the right person at a university who is positioned and motivated to support a pipeline of talent from their hallways to my lab or machine shop. It can take a level of persistence or luck that I don’t always have at my disposal. But the right people are out there.
“There’s no easy map of how to do this,” Yakacki said. “It gets a little tricky to even know who’d be the best partners. Reach out and talk to the university. If you don’t talk to the right person right away, don’t get discouraged.”
It’s not just about getting students into positions in the industry; it’s about getting industry experts into the classroom.
“What we’ve tried to do and I like to push for, is trying to get people who do work in industry as adjuncts teaching—some schools do that,” he said. “The worst thing you can do is have a bunch of academics teach your entire curricula…There’s certain areas where academics do really well, but getting that insight, getting students exposed to (the workplace)—I think everyone likes real-life examples. They like to get their hands on things and get out of the building.”
Sponsored research is another way to make inroads into emerging talent, Yakacki said. It can offer advantages to both the school and the company.
“I think sponsored research with universities is a great way for the university to get projects and money, but it’s also beneficial to the company,” he said. “In terms of doing some basic studies with a university, we tend to be cheaper than working with consultants, but at the same time, you can kind of identify a pipeline.”
Yakacki said he appreciates receiving calls from hiring managers who explain what they’re looking for and request applicants. That kind of discussion fosters stronger relationships and makes the hiring process more efficient.
It all comes back to opening lines of communication, he said.
“If you’re a company and you had someone teaching an elective, or if you’re doing sponsored research, when it comes time to hire, hiring can be a gamble and a frustrating process,” he said. “Don’t you think it’d be better if there were some overlap there? There’s no substitute for having worked on a project with somebody.”
Dawn Lissy is a biomedical engineer, entrepreneur, and innovator. Since 1998, the Empirical family of companies (Empirical Testing Corp., Empirical Consulting, LLC, and Empirical Machine, LLC) has operated under Lissy’s direction. Empirical offers the full range of regulatory and quality systems consulting, testing, small batch and prototype manufacturing, and validations services to bring a medical device to market. Empirical is very active within standards development organization ASTM International and has one of the widest scopes of test methods of any accredited independent lab in the United States. Because Lissy was a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, she has first-hand, in-depth knowledge of the regulatory landscape. Lissy holds an inventor patent for the Stackable Cage System for corpectomy and vertebrectomy. Her M.S. in biomedical engineering is from The University of Akron, Ohio.