A longstanding partnership between The Boeing Company and Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) is being hailed as a potential model for how to diversify STEM fields in general and America’s aerospace industry in particular.
“We’re really watching this one with great interest because I think it’s a model that we could use later,” says Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, chief operating officer at the National Science Foundation.
Ferrini-Mundy is referring to an initiative known as The Boeing-Washington University in St. Louis Partnership.
Besides Boeing and WUSTL, the partnership involves the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) and several community colleges, including St. Louis Community College.
Collectively, the multibillion-dollar aerospace giant and the colleges and universities collaborate to offer a low-cost pathway to an accredited engineering program.
Program participants can qualify for scholarships and internships. Mentorship is also offered.
The ultimate goal is to prepare students from diverse backgrounds from St. Louis and the surrounding region for jobs at Boeing, where the average salary is $100,000 — more than double the average for St. Louis residents, according to program officials.
The Boeing-WUSTL partnership — which dates back to 1993 — is one of about three dozen partnerships being advanced by the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF), an organization of university presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs.
It is part of BHEF’s National Higher Education and Workforce Initiative, which seeks to increase alignment between higher education and the workforce in high-skill, high-demand jobs, including in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, data science and analytics.
“Diversity is part of every single one of our projects, and what we are beginning to understand and operationalize is the business role in creating pull into the workforce in ways that help increase diversity of underrepresented populations, including women,” says Dr. Brian K. Fitzgerald, chief executive officer at the BHEF.
Matt Daniels, senior manager for education relations at The Boeing Company, says the program takes on added meaning when one considers the company’s proximity to Ferguson — a Missouri city that became emblematic of the plight of the African-American downtrodden after the 2014 police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The shooting led to riots and ultimately exposed a pattern of police targeting African-American residents for civil infractions in order to generate revenue for the city.
“Those residents in Ferguson, when the students are at their bus stops, they can see The Boeing Company, but many do not think that they have a pathway or access to get inside The Boeing Company and pursue jobs,” Daniels says.
The program not only seeks to upend that notion, but it also benefits Boeing because it enables the company to “access diverse talent where sometimes in our region that diverse talent is not there, especially from a technical perspective,” Daniels says.
Though Boeing contributes to the program financially, the company does not disclose the actual amount of its contribution. The effort also requires substantial contributions from higher education partners as well.
For instance, Washington University only charges program participants $500 per credit hour, whereas undergraduate tuition at the private, elite university — where only 17 percent of applicants are admitted — is upwards of $50,000 for the upcoming academic year.
“That’s a huge gap between what Washington University charges most of its students,” says Dr. Joseph O’Sullivan, dean of the Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program at WUSTL.
Asked why the university greatly reduces the cost of tuition for program participants, O’Sullivan says it’s about providing access to a high-quality, ABET-accredited engineering degree program for students from St. Louis.
ABET is the nonprofit organization that accredits engineering schools.
“We want to help St. Louis,” O’Sullivan says.
The idea is to not only provide opportunity to students but also to create a talent pool of program alumni in order to incentivize companies to stay in or move to St. Louis, O’Sullivan says. Program demographics were not immediately available. However, O’Sullivan says the talent pool created by program alumni “has more diversity than Washington University traditionally has.”
Half the student population at Washington University is White, 13 percent are Asian, and 19 percent are international students, according to federal data. Only 6 percent are African-American, whereas 47.7 percent of the St. Louis population is African-American.
To be admitted to the program, students must have a 2.75 GPA. Those who have a 2.5 are admitted on a probationary status, O’Sullivan says.
Students complete the first half of their program coursework at UMSL or at one of the area community colleges, including St. Louis Community College. The upper level courses are done during the evenings or on weekends at WUSTL. The idea is to give participants time to work during the day and gain practical experience as they complete their studies.
Students who graduate earn a joint degree in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering or civil engineering from UMSL and WUSTL.
O’Sullivan says 75 to 80 percent of the program participants graduate with an engineering degree, although some may take longer than the six years that the federal government uses to calculate graduation rates.
“A lot of students are working while they get their degree,” O’Sullivan explains. All of the program graduates get jobs, at least among the 20 to 30 percent who respond to a university survey, O’Sullivan says.
“There may be some that don’t get jobs, but I don’t hear about them,” O’Sullivan says. “From every measure that we have, it’s indistinguishable from 100 percent.”
Asked for examples of success, program officials point to alumni such as Eric’el Johnson, who graduated from the UMSL/WUSTL Undergraduate Joint Engineering Program with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2016.
Johnson is currently employed at Boeing in the company’s Engineering Career Foundation Program. Her job duties include testing circuit boards and designing test equipment, among other things, according to her LinkedIn profile.
She is also currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, her profile states.
One of her goals is to return to the Joint Engineering Program as an adjunct instructor.
“I want to be a representative for some of the minorities,” Johnson told the UMSL Daily. “I want to be a different face and allow students like me to say, ‘Hey there’s one professor that looks like me.’”
Other alumni have made even deeper inroads into the company. For instance, Evelyn Bailey Moore, who graduated from the program with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 2003, is the F-15 Navy/ID manager for Boeing Defense, Space and Security in St. Louis.
“She assumed the role at age 31, becoming the youngest female engineering manager at The Boeing Company,” says an UMSL webpage that shows she was honored with the “Outstanding Young Alumni Award” in 2015.
Shelley Lavender, president at Boeing Military Aircraft and St. Louis senior executive at Boeing Defense, Space & Security, says the Boeing- WUSTL partnership helps Boeing retain talent and thereby save money that the company would otherwise spend onboarding new applicants.
“If we can create a pipeline of local talent, we have a higher opportunity to retain that talent,” Lavender says.
Lavender also says the diversity created through the program helps Boeing come up with better design solutions. “We build very complex products. The path to a design is not always a straight line,” Lavender says. “The more diverse our engineers, the more you can bounce those ideas and bring different perspectives, from a chemist, from a physicist, from whatever discipline they may be. You will get a better solution in the end.”
— Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.