Companies should enable employees to continue lifelong learning, says Winzeler, as well as help engineering students get practical, hands-on experience.
Design News: Why should companies take an active interest in educating their employees? Can't they just hire people with the appropriate education and skills?
Winzeler: Well, we certainly haven't been able to do that. We are at the leading edge of our technologies, and in the Chicago area there certainly isn't an abundance of people that can function in our environment. That's what drove our need to educate and take a more long-term view. The best thing we can do is educate our workforce. I can't guarantee someone lifelong employment, but I can guarantee to keep their resume current. As employees who take advantage of Winzeler's educational opportunities grow in their skills and capabilities, so do we. That's a win-win environment.
Q: What kind of training are university engineering graduates missing?
A: When I was going to engineering school, I was among students who were mechanical. They were very interested in working with their hands and were the right people to be in mechanical-engineering school. Today I see a lot of people who are computer literate and good in math and science but don't necessarily have the hands-on skills that we had in the '60s. An engineer today who doesn't understand the manufacturing processes or the quality disciplines certainly can't design an adequate product.
Q:How can they pick up these skills?
A: Part-time work, internship programs, and co-op education lets students work and study. I don't think the business community makes it easy for someone to get the experience they need to be a competent engineer early on. We're a small company and can only absorb one intern per semester. Some big organizations use job shadowing and job mentoring to network with the schools they tend to recruit from.
Q: How do you get employees to take more of an interest in their careers?
A: I encourage my employees to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. We spend a lot of time working with a hired industrial psychologist to do career planning for everyone in the organization because I don't think people take that seriously until it's either too late or they reach a stage in their life when there are no options. There's a very poor correlation in this country between what people go to school for and what they do for the rest of their lives. Career planning is something you should do every three to five years as life's events occur. We all change our priorities and needs--it's an ongoing process. In this fast-paced world, if you don't love what you're doing and you can't separate the work from the fun and the fun from the work, you're not going to be able to deal with lifelong learning or the dynamics of staying current in your career.
Q: You say you're not CAD-literate yet you manage a CAD department. What are your plans for learning CAD?
A: I will probably start CAD training this fall--I'll at least get a CAD for Dummies under my belt or a managerial course in UNIX and Pro/E because of the things we're doing at Winzeler today. I'm continually taking short courses because I know if I'm encouraging everyone else to do it I better be doing it. But I enjoy it--I'd love to go back to school full time.
Q: What portion of your employees are taking advantage of the career-planning and educational opportunities the company offers?
A: For 34 people, we have a $50,000 educational budget. We've done everything from helping people get a four-year degree through night school to associate degree programs to helping people get certified in various disciplines. Typically about 10 to 15% of the organization is aggressively taking advantage of what we offer. I would like it to be higher.
Q: How can companies motivate employees to keep their education up to date?
A: It really boils down to helping people decide what they want to be when they grow up and then facilitating that whether it's inside or outside your organization. That's probably one of the best things a company can do. Our approach has been that we invest unconditionally in our people--we have no contracts that say they have to stay if we fund their college degree because we don't want them shackled here. What I hope to get out of it is a motivated, committed worker for some period of time. If every firm in this country were committed to long-range education, there would be a better workforce pool to draw from and we'd all benefit.