Putting Skin in the Game: Chevron and the Engineering Academies
Broadening access to promising postsecondary programs that lead to high-paying careers is a priority for colleges and universities across the country. One group that’s often missing from these efforts, however, is employers. The Engineering Academies program, pioneered by Texas A&M University and Chevron, is helping to provide a model of how employers can get involved in workforce development efforts at the postsecondary level. In this interview, Glenn Weckerlin reflects on how this model is different than the standard program sponsorship model practiced in most institution-employer partnerships, and shares his thoughts on how Chevron is benefitting from its work with the Engineering Academies.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How did Chevron become involved with the Engineering Academies?
Glenn Weckerlin (GW): The folks at Texas A&M had an initiative they were working on called 25 by 25, which aimed to increase the enrollment of engineering students up to 25,000 enrollments by 2025. The core component of that idea was going to community colleges and identifying better ways to transfer students from the community college to the university. It took about 30 seconds for us to get a feel for their goals and the idea of the Engineering Academies before we said, “We’re in!”
Evo: What’s Chevron’s role in supporting the academies themselves?
GW: What we did is a little bit different than a traditional sponsorship model. In the traditional model, somebody might come to you and ask for money, you give them a bunch of money and they go off and they put your name on something and then you’re done. Our name is on the academies but what Texas A&M and Chevron have done is built a partnership. We choose the community colleges together and we look at what needs are not being met in those programs. It gives us more skin in the game than just slapping a name on a program, and it gives them a valuable partner. We put our two PR departments together when we do a press release, when we have a launch we get together with all the government officials that they know and we know in the states, and we’re collaborating every step of the way. It’s a true partnership.
Evo: How does the company benefit from this formalized transfer pathway from two-year to four-year institutions?
GW: At the end of the day, our future workforce and all the talent that we need to execute the projects that we do to provide energy for the future is going to come as a result of hiring the right students. Anything that we can do to take one step further in the process and get quality students out of the university is a big help. Helping the university attract more quality students is even better. Another important piece is about the diversity not only of our hires but also of the student base. We have a pretty firm and strong view of the importance of diversity and inclusion in terms of how we solve our problems. Without diversity and inclusion you get one perspective and one perspective is never the best way to a solve problem. It’s a key component in their diversity strategy and it’s a key component in ours to work with partners like Texas A&M that have similar views and similar values on diversity.
Evo: What made Texas A&M stand out to you and your colleagues as an ideal partner to go down this road with?
GW: Any time you can look someone in the eyes and you know what they’re doing is not because they were told to do it but because it’s coming from within, you want to find a way to work with them, and that’s the case with Texas A&M folks and the Texas A&M Engineering Academies program.
It sounds a little bit cliché but more often than not, people get together with somebody, whether it’s a joint venture or a partnership, and their core values are not aligned, and it leads to issues down the road. If you don’t have that core alignment and then you turn around and have similar business objectives, a lot of times the deals are very short-lived. Now they look great, they get a splash on the PR announcement and they fall apart.
Texas A&M is committed to this, they’ve shown it, and I can look into their eyes and I can see that they’re extremely passionate about this. From my perspective, we think about these things 24/7 and I’m pretty convinced that they do the same thing. It’s a little bit of an intangible thing. Yes, it’s a top ranked engineering school. Yes, they put out a lot of great students every year. Yes, it’s in Texas near our facility. Yes, they have the right discipline. But those are all the mechanical things. A lot of schools would meet those criteria, but what you really need is a school that takes all those things and feels the need to do something different, and that’s what we’re doing here.
Evo: How do you define community colleges that would be ideal partners to work with and establish academies?
GW: It’s basically the same thing that we just talked about only one step backwards. The community colleges have to understand fully what they’re getting into because there are things they’re going to have to do differently and if they’re not ready to change then that’s not a good partner. They have to be willing to accept certain requirements for their programs, and they have to have a similar desire as well to push their students beyond an associate degree and into a four-year degree. Not every community college partner would fit that. They either wouldn’t have the means to do it or they wouldn’t have the leadership. We just have to have partners at every step of the way that are aligned on what we’re trying to achieve here.
Evo: To your mind, what’s the ideal role for employers to play in the higher education space?
GW: If employers were to look at students and talent as a supply chain problem like they look at products and raw materials—and almost everybody that’s in the manufacturing business has to do that—you would probably view universities differently. You would sit down and have strategic discussions with them, and you would have partnerships that were based on measurables that are coming out of the university and how they connect with the next step in the talent pipeline. The real space going forward is really solid talent acquisition partnerships, and that may sound like a simple thing to talk about, but it’s not as easy to execute. Companies and universities have had research agreements in place for a long time and those seem to work very well but when it gets to talent, you’ve got a third variable in the mix and that is the student. You both have to understand what’s driving the student. This week I’m at the NSBE conference with 5,000 aspiring National Society of Black Engineers and there are 5,000 kids walking around in suits looking for their job here. That process has been going on a long time and I would argue that it’s not the most efficient way to find the right talent and go out and recruit the right talent. I wouldn’t pass this up for a minute but I also think if you’re on campus and you have a strategic relationship with the university, a lot of that discussion becomes a 365-day discussion rather than one-week discussion and bumping into 1 of 5000 students who are already willing and able to jump out into the workforce.
Evo: What role do you feel universities need to play not just in the development of the workforce but in the ongoing professional development and ongoing learning opportunities for current employees?
GW: There are opportunities for universities and for continuing education. Many companies, including ours, are really pushing for more knowledge in the safety area so that students come in and they understand the importance of safety in everything they do, and that’s not necessarily something that’s taught at every university. You’re not talking about playing around in a textbook. You’re talking about real lives, real people and we’ve started to work. Some of the universities, including Texas A&M, have started doing a better job of teaching safety concepts to students. That’s a good example of companies working backwards to improve our workforce. The next step would be the universities stepping forward and ask the companies what they can do for our existing workforce to keep them on top of things. I know there are untapped opportunities.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about Chevron’s work with the Engineering Academies and how you hope to see the program grow?
GW: One of the really big keys once you get the program up and running is to get back to your commitment to your students. You’re really tapping into students in year one at the community college, so you’re not going to see results for 4 years, and people get impatient. Everyone has to be patient as we get the first class through and then we can look at the results and measure them to find out if we were successful.
This is a four-year plan and then that’s a long business cycle for folks these days with budgets and swings in the economy. A lot of things can happen in four years so it’s important to maintain that commitment to this program so that you don’t just get through the first class, but you also look at it as six- to eight-year commitment, and from there you can look ahead to 2025. If you have to tweak things on a yearly basis that’s fine, but don’t give up on the program because you really don’t have a shot at seeing the real results until those folks go into the workforce and until they get a job and until they stay at the company that hired them. If they leave the company two years after they got there that’s not success. Something failed in the process there because that’s expensive for the student and it’s expensive for the company.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on the Engineering Academy model, please see:
- Engineering Academies: An Innovative Model to Address Three Challenges At Once Jackie Perez | Director of Engineering Academies, Texas A&M University
Author Perspective: Employer