Professor Hal Rumsey with student Linda Josephson
Professor Hal Rumsey with student Linda Josephson

Fifteen years ago, when the Boeing Company was developing their new 777 airplane, they needed to increase production from three to seven planes per month.

Executives wanted to develop a moving production line as a whole new way of building wide-body airplanes. The plane, with four to five million parts, would be assembled while in motion, similar to automobile assembly lines.

“Everything had to change,” remembers Tad Skrobecki, a manager in the airframe engineering department at Boeing.

Skrobecki, who was then a recent graduate of WSU’s Engineering and Technology Management Program, recalls that he and his team used much of the training they had received in the program to come up with a plan for their part of the new line. Rather than taking a conventional approach for the redesign, the engineers took information directly from their classes on operations research and theory of constraints and used those tools to make changes that optimized production.

“We were not only able to do the project, but we beat our targets,” he said.

WSU’s Engineering and Technology Management Program doesn’t get the attention of undergraduate programs and perhaps may not sound as exciting as the latest in cutting- edge research. But the small program, which graduates about 20 or 25 students per year, has significant and tangible results that show up in companies throughout the Northwest and the world.

“We don’t just receive an academic benefit,” says Skrobecki. “This program has an impact on our bottom line. It’s real, and it’s significant.”

The program started in the early 1980s. At that time, when engineers wanted to build their management skills, they returned to school for a MBA. Increasingly, however, they wanted to learn management skills that applied better to technical fields, says John Ringo, director of the program. Out of this need came the engineering management program, providing a more analytical approach than a traditional MBA program.

When people graduate with an undergraduate engineering degree, they have a reasonable knowledge of technology, but little practical experience, says Ringo. The ETM program, he says, teaches them how to efficiently manage all aspects of a project. Classroom activities are applied directly to the workplace.

As James Holt, who teaches in the program, said one student told him, “You are the most practical academic I’ve ever met.”

Most of the students in the program are engineers, although some students come from other disciplines, such as business. Students graduate with a master’s of engineering and technology management degree. The program also offers professional certificates in eight specialized areas.

Because the courses are for working professionals, they are taught online and generally from late afternoon until 10:00 p.m. Students take one to two courses per semester. Originally, the program used the Washington Higher Education Telecommunications System (WHETS) distance delivery system, but classes are increasingly web-based. The program includes four full-time faculty members, based in Spokane, Seattle, Vancouver, and Pullman, and two adjuncts.

“Students from around the world have live microphones and video cameras to feel a real part of the discussion,” says Holt. “A student in the Netherlands can ask a question and a student in Moldova joins in the discussion.”

Alex Nocivelli, CEO of Luceat, a fiber optics company in Italy, arises at 4:00 a.m. to attend the WSU classes before his work day starts.

“WSU gave me the option to take a human behavior class in Italy and transfer it to WSU in order to complete my graduate requirements. But I find it much better to take courses from WSU,” he says. “They are the best I can get and having it delivered to my home is excellent. I’m always challenged, interested, and taught in wonderful ways. Because of WSU, I’ve doubled my profits and plan to double them again!”

According to Holt, a survey of 85 graduates of the program found that the students felt that the program had helped them save, on average, approximately $70,000 on work projects.

“These working professionals bring the problems from their work places into the classroom for discussion,” he says. “They learn from each other as well as from excellent faculty guidance. They often comment on how much it means to see other industry problems because it helps them better understand how to fix their own.”

Skrobecki was one of about 15 or 20 Boeing commercial airplane engineers who went through the program in the mid-1990s. “WSU’s program was a perfect fit,” he said.

The program had an early distance learning approach when many programs required students to come to campuses. Today, the program remains very connected to industry, and about 200 Boeing employees have been enrolled, he says.

Faculty who teach in the ETM program, he says, stay contemporary on industry trends. They were preparing students for virtual teaming in the 1990s, and now they are active leaders of sustainability, says Skrobecki. The faculty do a good job of making themselves available to students, which adds to the program’s strength. The program also provides a pathway of advancement for its students, says Skrobecki. Many of those who received certificates go on to management and senior technical careers.

“These programs are vital to our industry success,” he says. “The university is doing a fantastic job.”