Can the service sector be engineered?
THE SERVICE SECTOR IS THE MAIN DRIVER of the world's biggest economy. It now accounts for nearly 80% of all economic activity in the US-- far outstripping manufacturing (14%) and agriculture (2%). Census Data (PDF File)
While NSF and other bodies have recognized the need for engineers to work within the service sector, present-day engineering curricula are generally ill-suited to meet its needs.
By and large, engineering students are taught how to design and build products-- better machines, instruments, and other devices or manufacturing processes-- rather than services.
An interdisciplinary team of faculty members at Michigan Tech has set its sights on developing a new engineering curriculum devoted entirely to and especially for the industries within the service sector. The emphasis will be on design and operation of service processes and systems for industry, academic, and government enterprises.
"The efforts of engineers have led to improved productivity of the agricultural and manufacturing sectors," notes John Sutherland, Henes Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering. "Now it's time to turn our attention to the service sector.
"We are talking about something much different than McDonald's, a barbershop, or the Maytag Repairman," he adds. "We envision a curriculum that will train engineers to design and manage systems with a significant human element and where a significant portion of the service value may be associated with information content."
To define the characteristics of this new curriculum, an interdisciplinary team was formed representing such diverse programs as Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Mathmatics, Electrical Engineering, and the School of Business and Economics.
The Michigan Tech team then completed a Delphi Study, funded by an NSF planning grant. Industry response has been enthusiastic, and the team plans to continue working closely with industry partners, particularly the health care industry.The Michigan Tech team is now working with the results of the Delphi Study to create a new curriculum. While it is still early in the development process, the curriculum is likely to contain significant content adapted from the industrial and systems engineering disciplines. The end result will be broadly interdisciplinary, incorporating subject matter from multiple fields both within and outside of engineering.
"We believe this program will help attract diverse learners to engineering," says Sheryl Sorby, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering. "It is essential to provide students and society with this new engineering career path," she adds. "Improving the service sector has the potential to help us all. If engineering know-how can be used to reduce health care costs, imagine the resulting savings in the cost of producing manufactured goods."