Teschler on Topic
Leland Teschler • Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW_LeeTeschler
If you are a kid living in the UK and want an engineering degree, you can get a free one by attending the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology. James Dyson—probably best known for his invention of the bagless vacuum cleaner—set up the Institute in 2017. His motivation was an engineering skills shortage in the UK.
The Institute grants full-blown four-year engineering degrees. It is a genuine educational facility complete with its own campus buildings and dorms. Moreover, students aren’t subjected to the math-and-physics death march that characterizes the freshman and sophomore years of many traditional engineering degree programs: Dyson students also work part-time as engineering apprentices pretty much from the beginning of their academic careers. During the typical term, students get two days a week of teaching and study. The rest of the week they work alongside Dyson engineers on real Dyson projects. And Dyson Institute graduates don’t have to worry about college loans. Tuition there is not only free, but students get paid for the work done during their apprenticeships.
Residents of the U.S. might be thinking that it would be nice to have something like the Dyson Institute in the States. Actually, there was once an institution much like it. Until 1982, the General Motors Institute operated in Flint, Mich. Run by GMC since 1926, it was once dubbed the “West Point of the automobile industry.” Like the Dyson Institute, GMI could grant degrees. It also pioneered freshman-level manufacturing courses. Students alternated between working at GMC and attending school every six or 12 weeks. Though tuition wasn’t free, GMC partially subsidized it.
GMI is still around but is now called Kettering University after GMC spun it off in 1982. Once it became privately run, tuition subsidies went away though the cooperative education model was retained and is still in place. And students are paid for their coop work.
All in all, you’d have to say Kettering doesn’t seem to have been harmed by GMC kicking it out of the nest. It was ranked 13th nationally in non-Ph.D. Engineering programs by U.S News and World Report and fourth in the country by The Economist magazine in terms of alumni holding patents.
Still, the national hand-wringing about the lack of STEM graduates has been with us for a long time. So you’d have to wonder why GMC decided to get out of STEM education while Dyson saw fit to enter it. We asked both GMC and Kettering University to explain what went into the decision to cut ties, but neither responded to us.
However, the economic environment of the early 1980s provides some clues. On the surface, 1982 looked like a good year financially for GMC. Its 1982 profits were the largest since 1979. But GMC had lost money only for the second time ever in 1980. And financial analysts figured GM’s good showing for 1982 was due largely to cost-cutting, use of income tax credits and big profits for its subsidiaries, not from building and selling better vehicles.
Perhaps not coincidentally, 1981 was the year Jack Welch became president and CEO of GE. Welch had a reputation for intensely pressuring managers to produce short-term results, going so far as to annually fire the bottom 10% of GE managers regardless of their absolute performance. Welch was lionized for shenanigans that included converting GE from a manufacturing company into basically an unregulated bank, and it’s possible GMC top brass took note. It diversified into mortgages and data processing while its U.S. vehicle market share fell from almost half to a third.
When James Dyson explained why he was creating the Dyson Institute, he said, “We are competing globally with Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore. It’s all the major technology nations and we have got to be better than them.” If GMC management in the 1980s realized global competition was upon them, their response was to spin off GMI and apparently get more heavily into banking. DW
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