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New degree tailored to manufacturing sector

by Daniel McCabe

Starting this September, the next generation of vice-presidents of manufacturing for companies like Inco, Dofasco and Ford Canada are going to come to McGill for training.

Or at least that's the hope behind a new master's program in manufacturing management offered jointly by the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Faculty of Management.

Thanks in large measure to the globalization of trade, the manufacturing industry has become far more complex in recent years, notes mechanical engineering professor Vince Thomson. "These days you might have the design for a product coming out of Canada, the parts for the product coming from the U.S. and the manufacturing taking place in Singapore. How do you organize all that?"

As a result of this growing trend, companies involved in manufacturing require better trained managers with specialized skills to head up their manufacturing activities, argues Thomson.

"Traditionally, you would find engineers with management potential promoted into those sorts of jobs. Or engineers would go back to school and get their MBAs. We've been talking to engineers, human resources people and heads of companies and they all say that MBAs are fine for passing along financial management and interpersonal skills, but what's sorely lacking is the context of manufacturing.

"The MBA students don't learn how to manage a supply chain or how to bring a product to market on a global scale," says Thomson who, along with management professor Richard Loulou, serves as coordinator for the new master's program.

"MBA degrees just don't have much room for specializations," points out Loulou. "There are so many things to cover in a typical MBA program that there's never any time left to focus on a particular area in any depth."

And the engineers who do enrol in MBA programs don't always return to the manufacturing sector. "MBAs tend to transform engineers into managers who want to get involved in a whole other area like marketing," says Loulou.

Loulou credits former management colleague Pankaj Chandra for coming up with the original idea for the program. Spotting a niche that looked like it needed to be filled, Loulou, along with Dean of Management Wallace Crowston and others, approached the mechanical engineering department to see if they would be interested in collaborating on a program. "We were on the same wavelength right from the start," says Thomson.

"When we went to industry and asked them if they needed individuals with the kind of training we had in mind, the answer was very positive," says Loulou. Adds Thomson, "Five years ago there really weren't any comparable programs in North America. Today there are about a dozen. I think that points to a fairly significant demand."

The McGill degree will involve 60 credits over a 20-month period. Students will take management courses in finance, organizational behaviour, accounting and marketing along with courses specifically geared to the manufacturing sector, such as computer integrated manufacturing, product design and manufacturing and the environment.

"The program is unique in Canada and the emphasis we've placed on international management makes it unique in North America," says Thomson.

Another component of the program is a paid, four-month summer internship with a company. The internships are designed to give students first-hand experience in the international management and operation of a manufacturing firm.

"So far, 25 companies have agreed to sponsor an intern. We won't accept a student into the program unless we can ensure her an internship," says Thomson.

Designing the master's program took more than two-and-a-half years. Eleven of the courses being offered are brand new. Manufacturing firms were solicited for their views and the companies had the opportunity to vet the proposed curriculum. After scrutinizing the first set of proposed courses, the companies suggested the professors go back to their drawing boards to tighten up some areas.

"What was important for them was that the degree shouldn't just focus on the technical aspects. They wanted courses that dealt with things like teamwork, motivation and human behaviour as well," says Loulou. "They didn't have the final word, but they did have a significant input," adds Thomson.

Thomson says he expects most students will come from engineering backgrounds, but that the entrance requirements "will tend to be flexible. If someone with a science or management degree and some experience in a manufacturing organization wanted to take the program, we would certainly consider that person."

The application deadline for the program's first crop of students is May 1. Having done a fair amount of market research, Loulou says the rest is up to the customer. "We know that companies are interested in what we're doing and we're confident that students will be too. But you never really know for sure until the applications come in."