While companies have for decades funded research and recruited at institutions of higher learning, they now are more involved in what students do in some four-year technical programs. They are making recommendations on curricula and influencing students' skills as early as sophomore year, said Amy Slaton, a professor of history at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
"In the last five to eight years" industry and academic cooperation "has taken another notch up," Slaton said. Bachelor's-level engineers "are coming out with a more focused, practical education that serves industry really well."
United Technologies partners with about a dozen U.S. universities and contributes about $5 million annually. The money may be in the form of a donated jet-engine part or cash that funds a lecture series. The Hartford, Conn.-based company recruits at schools such as University of Connecticut and Pennsylvania State University for more than 1,000 internships a year.
"I want more than my fair share" of engineering talent, said Louis Chenevert, chairman and chief executive officer of the aerospace and building-products manufacturer. "We offer the best jobs in America to these people," he said, noting that young engineers get a chance to work on "exciting stuff," such as the Black Hawk helicopter, made by the company's Sikorsky division.
While Slaton says she worries universities are becoming too vocational — with "much of what we see getting produced as knowledge in the schools" starting from "an industry-related focus" — students interviewed for this story weren't complaining.
Peterson, the Virginia Tech student, said he structured his course work toward specializations that Boeing and GE need. When he graduates with a mechanical-engineering degree in 2013, he will have not only experience working at the two companies but also hands-on involvement with some of their top projects.