Although Vermeer Corp. recruits from engineering schools across the country, it recently began working with a liberal arts college that’s right in its backyard — Central College — as a potential source of new engineers. 

Vermeer, along with Pella Corp. and Precision Pulley & Idler (PPI), is partnering with Central College on its new engineering program, which now has 16 students enrolled. Two of the program’s earliest students received their degrees in May. When it’s fully ramped up over the next several years, the program is expected to accommodate about 60 undergraduate engineering majors. 

Mike Byram, vice president of product development with Vermeer, helps set hiring guidelines for the skills the company expects from its engineers. Developing a closer relationship with Central College through the new program is important for broadening the pipeline, he said. 

“We have some pretty good pipelines for engineers, but it’s of interest to us to tie a liberal arts college with an engineering curriculum, to see what kind of different engineers we can entice,” he said.  

Central College’s new program is the product of a multiyear planning process that began soon after Mark Putnam began as the Pella college’s president in 2010. 

“That planning process led us to think, we really could run an engineering program, given the competencies we have and the assets we have available to us locally,” Putnam said. With the proximity of three major manufacturers that heavily recruit for engineering talent, “[we concluded] this is a resource-rich environment for us to consider this in.” 

After confirming with an engineer who served as a consultant that it could be feasible, the college conducted a thorough market study, and “we found remarkable interest in our inquiry pool,” Putnam said. 

Since launching the program two years ago, “the demand has increased; it’s been very steady,” he said. With the program now appearing on the fall course schedule for the first time, about 10 percent of next year’s incoming students have indicated they’re interested in engineering. However, Putnam said, “we don’t really expect they’ll all graduate as engineers because they don’t have to declare a major until the end of their sophomore year.” The college’s total enrollment is 1,248. 

Over the past two years the program has been pioneered with the involvement of a handful of dedicated students eager to help get it off the ground, said Mary Strey, Central College’s vice president for academic affairs. 

“Our intention was to build the courses for students to then move into, and instead, we built the courses as students actually landed, which was really delightful,” she said. 

Four faculty members have been hired for the program, which provides a combined curriculum geared toward mechanical and electrical engineering. By late May of this year — as tulip beds were being dug up around campus — boxes of new engineering lab equipment, some donated by Vermeer, were being unpacked in freshly renovated engineering labs in Peace Hall on campus. 

“What is so exciting is [the faculty] are here because they want to build this program,” Strey said. “Their commitment is to undergraduate students in this liberal arts setting, and building a program from scratch that really fulfills all of the industry standards. So their work has been both teaching and simultaneously building the program over these past few years.” 
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, the number of mechanical engineers in the United States is expected to grow 9 percent between 2016 and 2026 — an additional 25,300 positions. Median pay for mechanical engineers is $85,880 per year. 

Vermeer, Pella Corp. and PPI each play significant roles in Central College’s program, particularly in the two-semester capstone design project that each senior must complete to receive the degree, said Puneet Vishwakarma, a lecturer in physics with the program. 

Vishwakarma, who has a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree in mechanical engineering, teaches senior-level courses that integrate knowledge from both electrical and mechanical engineering disciplines, which together are often referred to as control technologies. 

“Engineers at each of the three companies will give students project ideas to consider, which will be supported by the company, and the students will develop a solution for the company,” he said. Vermeer participated in the first capstone project last year, a robotic snowblower designed by the program’s first two graduates, Jacob Challen and Cory McCleary — which they nicknamed “The Anklebiter.” 

In comparison to highly specialized engineering programs such as those offered by Iowa State University, Central College’s engineering program is much broader, but not deep in any single area, said Viktor Martisovits, associate professor of physics with the program.

“The reason for this is that we are thinking about engineering five or 10 years from now, and these students might be in the workforce the next 30 or 40 years,” he said. “Engineering 30 years from now, nobody really knows what it will be like. But lots of things right now that are in basic science probably are going to find applications to engineering. So we feel that these students will benefit greatly if they have a broader background in basic science.” 

Each engineering student at Central College will take the same liberal arts core requirements as any other major at the college, which Martisovits believes will generate more well-rounded engineers. 

“So our students will get much more practice at writing, and I’m not talking about technical writing — I’m talking about writing in plain English and communicating,” he said. “That’s another thing we believe will help our students to be successful.” 

Vermeer, which currently has a couple of engineers on staff who are graduates of Wartburg College’s engineering program, has recognized the value of liberal arts-based engineering programs that some schools are offering. “We are seeing some more well-rounded engineers,” Byram said. “They may not be technically skilled. But we need engineering managers and leaders. We just think that it kind of rounds out some of our engineering staff.” 

Overall, Central College’s program is helping the company to build a closer relationship with the college for recruiting purposes “to see value in the people and the company so they are interested in coming to work for us,” Byram said.  

From Central College’s standpoint, the capstone design project could provide a model for a more experiential approach for other majors, Strey said. 

“We have been looking at how we expand high-impact practices and experiential learning in various settings,” she said. “In some places it’s really obvious — in computer science or similar programs. It’s less obvious in some of the humanities areas. … I can imagine that translating across the curriculum in every discipline.” 

A president’s perspective on the outlook for small liberal arts colleges 

Central College President Mark Putnam has thought a lot about the future of liberal arts institutions — and not just Central College but also his counterparts across Iowa. 

“We are all in the aggregate, and almost uniformly, smaller than we were at the peak of the echo boom [millennials reaching college age],” said Putnam, who is also midway through a four-year term as chair of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “So we all knew that was coming because you could see the demographic patterns.” 

Nearly every member institution of the IAICU is a small college of just a few thousand students, which are particularly challenged by demographic changes that have pressed them into deeper — albeit friendly — competition, he said. 

Putnam noted that many colleges across the country are working to carve out their particular niches to recalibrate for the changing market. 

“I would say the intensity of pressure on those choices is greater now than at any point in my career,” he said. “And these decisions play out over decades, which is a thing that’s unique about a college presidency. When I make a decision about opening a tenure track position, I’m always reminded of a faculty member who was here 44 years. I might be making a decision for a person who will be here more than four decades — that’s a long-term commitment.” 

Some colleges’ approach to boosting enrollment by discounting tuition could backfire, as demand for discounts is insatiable, he said. 

“I think we all need to be mindful about being clear about purpose and value above all else. If we chase things that are short-term in perspective, there is some increased risk.”