The US Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, or CERDEC, has created a systems engineering certificate program to address potential workforce knowledge gaps and to build a successful path for today's sustainment engineers as well as those of tomorrow.
The program is the brainchild of Ron Michel, director of CERDEC's Product Realization Systems Engineering and Quality Directorate, or PRD, and it addresses one of his leadership goals: facilitating his team's success.
"One of the ways a leader contributes to mission success is by providing his team access to development aimed directly at organizational competency or experience gaps," said Michel. "In PRD's case, that encompasses systems sustainment supportability engineering and all the associated competencies."
PRD provides the Army with applied engineering skills for all command, control, communications, computers, cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or C5ISR, systems and works to increase efficiencies in cost, schedule, delivery and system reliability. As the Army's applied research and advanced technology development center for C5ISR innovation, CERDEC develops and matures capabilities that support Army Modernization priorities and enable tactical overmatch for the joint warfighter.
PRD is the leading authority on technical aspects throughout every phase of the C5ISR system lifecycle, from the improvement of fielded systems functionality to the deployment of new, cutting-edge technologies. PRD serves as the engineering bridge that maintains and enriches fielded, often aging, Soldier capabilities as the Army transitions those legacy systems to its next generation force.
Long interested in workforce development that includes not just training, but education, Michel hit on the idea of the certificate program to address the potential gaps that could arise as PRD's experienced, sustainment engineers retire and a new generation of engineers moves in - a generation hungry for knowledge and looking to grow in their careers.
Michel, along with Al Visconti, engineering operations division chief at PRD, and Jessica Hall, PRD career management specialist, worked to bring the sustainment engineering certificate program to fruition, in conjunction with Stevens Institute of Technology. The courses apply toward a master's degree in Systems Engineering.
"Stevens offers a similar systems engineering certificate, but we wanted to create our own mission-specific certificate," said Hall. "We replaced a couple classes with those we thought were unique or supported our mission, and these four resulting classes, approved by Stevens' department of Systems Engineering, best represent our core competencies."
Taught over approximately a 14-month period, the four graduate-level courses are Design and Managing the Development Enterprise; Systems Thinking; Design for System Reliability, Maintainability and Supportability; and Systems Supportability and Logistics.
"These aren't system-specific courses; they're more problem-solving courses," Visconti explained. "There's a benefit to the organization here in that the engineers are building their skillsets, and we can use them across multiple problem sets and different systems."
PRD's certificate program officially began October 2016, and the first cohort of 16 engineers finished the courses in February, 2018. There is a second cohort with 15 members currently working its way through the certificate course, and it will finish in November; a third cohort is planned at a later date.
One benefit of designing a mission-centric certificate is the opportunity to tailor it to the needs of busy students who possess different learning styles and may be at the mercy of complicated project assignments.
"I talked to various groups about possible learning scenarios, and we discovered some of our engineers like online classes, while others want to see a professor face to face," Hall said. "In the end, we thought a combination of those could work, so we designed each course to include four mandatory classroom days and the rest is online."
"It's a different style because professors come here to teach and there's concentrated classroom time," continued Visconti. "There's time in between where students work on projects, dialogue electronically and virtually with the instructors and finally come back to meet again as a group."
The members of the first cohort, now in possession of the systems engineering certificate, are continuing their education through an additional class, Systems Architecture and Design, which also counts toward a master's degree. With the completion of this fifth course, each student will be halfway toward the degree which consists of 10 total classes. Each cohort will take this fifth course upon completion of the certificate program.
Because the courses are so focused on PRD's competencies, and the students are working engineers, they are able to immediately apply the concepts they're learning.
"I've already used the techniques we learned in projects I am working on," said BJ Hageman, Chief, Program Support Branch with PRD, a member of the first cohort. "For example, I've been able to easily do modelling work that I would have struggled with before, and I have been able to present my findings in new and more readily understood ways."
"The ability to see the immediate contribution to what I do on a daily basis made the classes worthwhile," added Susan Tyndall, project lead engineer, PDM Network Modernization at PRD, also from the first cohort, "and I've gone back to nearly all my course material for some reference or information that relates directly to issues or tasks I'm involved with."
In addition to the educational benefits of the certificate program, the cohort experience offers a relationship aspect that's also valuable. Hall observed that the first cohort had a mix of new and experienced engineers, and they developed positive professional relationships in which they networked and learned from each other.
"Building teamwork with my fellow students, getting to work with people I don't normally see on a daily basis and drawing out each other's ability to lead and execute complex tasks was a favorite take-away," Hageman said.
PRD is committed to making this time and money investment in its growing workforce, and in addition to the professional growth of each engineer, looks to see returns on its investment on a larger scale for the entire directorate.
"By the time they're done with the program, the engineers have learned how to look at systems and issues from many perspectives, and that's very valuable in the course of performing our mission," Michel said.
"There's a greater and more varied perspective when looking, not only at an organizational viewpoint, but at the system I'm working with and in asking how I can make improvements to that system to make sure it meets the requirements and capabilities to go out to PRD's ultimate customer, the Soldier," agreed Franz Conway, senior systems sustainment management engineer.
Michel spoke of how this education contributes to his goal of creating a bench of experts who can react to special requests for assessments, as well as provide the go-to expertise for other workforce members who perhaps don't have expertise in a particular area. The experts will assist the rest of the workforce, as well as mentor and train them on the PRD competencies.
"We expect a great increase in value contribution within the C5ISR Army community of practice by these graduates," he said.
Even broader than filling knowledge and experience gaps, the overarching goal of the program is one of creating the strong, knowledgeable sustainment professionals who will march PRD, with all its technical competencies and strengths, into the future.
"PRD's leadership has provided an opportunity where they're investing in us - to learn more about systems supportability, of course, but even more so, to think like and become leaders," said Kevin Kirkwood, acting chief, Electronic Sensors branch with PRD and part of the second cohort, now in session.
"I tell the cohort members that this program is really not about them per se, but about the organization's collective competencies and output, its workforce and the workforce after next," Michel said. "Success is an expected outcome, and as they become leaders and look at issues from additional perspectives and apply improved decision-making capabilities, they will increase PRD's value proposition to ensure the unmatched success of Army Warfighters."