The youngest California State University campus could soon launch its very own engineering school after State Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin proposed allocating $1.5 million in state funds to the university.
CSU Channel Islands is the only public university in Ventura County, where companies such as Amgen, Haas Automation, Teledyne Systems and the naval base at Port Hueneme make up the Highway 101 Tech Corridor and offer of hundreds of engineering jobs.
These businesses often must hire employees from outside the region since there’s no local public university generating working engineers, according to one study on the engineering school proposal.
“We really need engineers on this campus because there’s roughly 300 engineering positions in Ventura County in any given year,” said Michael Soltys, chair of the computer science department. He and the university’s mathematics department chair, Ivona Grzegorczyk, are spearheading efforts to launch the program. “A lot of software companies in the area have come to me directly, asking if we produce software engineers.”
“There’s a big need for engineers in Ventura County,” Assemblywoman Irwin told the Business Times. “And there’s a very strong correlation between having the right type of graduates from a university and having a strong business community.”
Of Irwin’s $1.5 million proposal, roughly $500,000 would be allocated each year for three years to cover start-up costs, hire two faculty members and pay for lab support.
There’s currently no department or bachelor’s or master’s degrees in engineering available at the university, but the campus does offer minors in robotics engineering, game design and security systems engineering.
Given a tight pool of resources and funding, the university is planning on starting the program with specialized areas of engineering rather than introducing broader areas of engineering such as mechanical, according to Soltys.
“Instead of starting with general engineering, we said let’s just find out which type of engineering is the most needed in the county,” Soltys said.
Initially, the CSUCI engineering program plans to offer a degree in mechatronics, a quickly growing area of engineering that is essentially an intersection of mechanics, control theory, computer science and electronics that deals with improving and optimizing the design and functionality of systems. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, specialized engineers such as those working in mechatronics earn median annual wages of $92,680 as of May 2013, with the middle 50 percent of these professionals earning between $68,610 and $117,930 annually.
“As the university grows, we would like to offer general areas of engineering as well,” Soltys said.
Introducing an engineering school at a public university to the area could help the local economy significantly since the only other university with an engineering program is California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, which offers undergraduate degrees in agriculture and biological engineering.
“Having higher education that’s public education, for engineers especially, is a big need in California,” said Mary Erchul, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of California.
A program at CSUCI could boost the Ventura County’s ability to attract and retain engineers at a rate that’s more competitive with the nearby counties of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, where there’s growing tech sectors near universities generating the workforce to support them.
“Just getting any engineering program in that area will help immensely with attracting engineers to work there,” Erchul said. “I think it could grow into a Santa Barbara-like market [for tech and engineering]…As soon as you get an established program in that area, you’re going to have a bigger resource for local businesses to pull from.”
With a full proposal already set forth, CSUCI has shown it has the market and willingness to launch a successful program, according to Irwin.
“They’ve done a lot of the footwork already,” she said “There’re a lot of companies that have already expressed an interest in hiring engineers that come out of the university.”
CSUCI is still awaiting approval on state funding and there’s no set date for a program launch, but the campus is moving as quickly as it can to be ready when approval comes through, Soltys said, who added that the statewide Board of Trustees will likely readily approve the program once the funding’s in place.
“We could mount it very quickly,” Soltys said. “We already offer a lot of the courses so we’d be able to bring in the first cohort of students very quickly — within a year.”