Published on 2017/02/09

The EvoLLLution | Pivoting to Serve Emerging Labor Market Needs
By repurposing existing programming and through working with employer partners, it’s possible to identify coming workforce trends and determine how to pivot to meet those needs before the rest of the market.

The labor market is rapidly evolving and today’s professionals are preparing for a world where the Internet of Things, cybersecurity, the smart grid and defense are top-of-mind priorities for a wide range of employers. Often the labor market moves faster than the postsecondary space—much to the chagrin of outside observers—but with a new Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) master’s degree being launched by Vanderbilt University School of Engineering, aimed both at students who just earned their bachelor’s degrees and at those already working in industry, they’re hoping to stay ahead of the trend. In this interview, Xenofon Koutsoukos reflects back on what it took to develop the program and shares his thoughts on how it aligns with institutional and industry goals.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How does this degree complement objectives Vanderbilt University School of Engineering already holds?

Xenofon Koutsoukos (XK): Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) is one of the nine intellectual neighborhoods in the School of Engineering – basically, our strategic research areas that rely upon collaborations across departments and campus-wide. We already have many Ph.D. students working in CPS topics, as well as classes in the area at the undergraduate level, so there was clearly the need to offer a degree at the master’s level.

We only had to add a new engineering leadership class and, of course, refocus existing classes to better integrate with each other and address this particular population of students.

Evo: So you were able to do this with existing faculty?

XK: Our proposal contained a large list of affiliated faculty from all the departments, 23 of us, in fact. Among all of us, we are able to handle the load.

Evo: The amount of work it takes to launch something like this is considerable. What inspired you and kept you motivated?

XK: At least some of my motivation is a recent National Academy of Engineering report about CPS education that basically proposes the idea of a specialized CPS engineer. It makes a very strong case that organizations endanger themselves if they have engineering teams that don’t have the needed education, don’t understand the intricacies of the technology and how to develop platforms but still are responsible for developing life-critical CPS systems.

One way to address that is to create the degree at the master’s level. You can take students from a variety of STEM backgrounds and educate them to become CPS engineers. You can take professionals already working in the tech industry, have them go back to school for a year, and they return to their former employers or go out on the job market as proficient CPS engineers.

To serve that need, we held extensive discussions among all levels of the university about the benefits of the program and how it fit into the academic mission. Of course, we had to get buy-in from everyone in order to make it work. People could see the impact early on and understand that the program is consistent with our academic and strategic plans and experiences we already offer.

Evo: How did you gain the buy-in necessary from faculty to launch this program without the addition of new faculty?

XK: Because CPS is an intellectual neighborhood of the School of Engineering, we’re constantly reviewing the need for faculty and adding when necessary. We added two new faculty members last year in the CPS area before this degree was ever put through the approval process. Additionally, since the classes for this programs are already in existence, our new master’s students will enroll in those.

Evo: Do you expect the CPS program to evolve into a significant revenue-generator for the School of Engineering?

XK: Our goal is to have around 20 students, which is similar to classes in our other master’s degrees. So, we anticipate that it will be sustainable and generate revenue similar to that of other master’s degrees.

Evo: Speaking directly to the working professional, where is the payoff? Taking a year off from earning and paying tuition instead is definitely an investment.

XK: The degree costs the same as any other through Vanderbilt’s graduate school, and the payoff rests in the booming Internet of Things market. Most projections say we’ll have more than 50 billion connected devices by 2020, although some are much higher. No matter what, that represents trillions of dollars in market investment. That’s the largest increase in any market out there. If working professionals want to tap into those salaries, they’ll have to stay marketable.

We also expect companies will assist some of their people to pay for such a degree with a commitment to come back and use it. There are a lot of companies with disciplines and missions being transformed by IoT, and they’ll be forced to either hire people with the right skills or send employees back to school. We’re talking about utility companies, tech firms, home builders, developers. The opportunities are virtually limitless.

Our research shows that companies are particularly hungry for degrees at the master’s level. For instance, a major car manufacturer may hire a handful of Ph.D. holders per year. But they’ll hire far more people at the master’s level, because they can be placed throughout the organization as change agents. I just got an email from one of our alums seeking candidates with a master’s degree.

Evo: It’s interesting how many backgrounds you’re accepting into the program. How did you decide on the prerequisites?

XK: The program is targeting all the engineering majors we already have, so that was the easy part. But we also included degrees in mathematics and the physical sciences, because those students will understand both the technical concepts and likely have some kind of programming experience. We also know they’ll be successful, because we see a number of undergraduates from those majors switching to engineering. We actually graduate a higher number of students with engineering degrees than those who enrolled in our school as freshmen.

Since this is our first year, I don’t want to make any predictions about whether we’ll get more people going straight through or coming back from industry. I do think we’ll get a number of international students, because that’s what’s happened with our computer science master’s program.

Evo: How are you marketing the program to prospective students? Are you directing your efforts specifically toward individual students, or are you making a concerted effort to drive interest and engagement from employers?

XK: We’ve done a social media campaign, sent media releases to outlets whose readership would be interested in this and we’ve reached out to other schools with undergraduates who meet the prerequisites. Our graduate school recruiter will be on the road at events, making sure those who attend understand the benefits of the degree. We’re also reaching out to employers with whom we have existing relationships, emailing them about the benefits of this new degree.

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Key Takeaways

  • By repurposing and repackaging existing courses, Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering was able to design and launch an innovative graduate program aimed at preparing students with the skills and knowledge to succeed in the emerging labor market without creating significant additional costs for the institution.
  • The program is being targeted both at recent graduates and working professionals, and as such the outreach efforts to market the program are varied