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Engineering a bold future: Bradley and Caterpillar

Following the naming of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology in October, Bradley Hilltopics had the opportunity to interview Doug Oberhelman, Caterpillar Inc.’s chairman and CEO, about the future of the Bradley and Caterpillar partnership.

Q What role do you see the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology playing to solve the major challenges facing the world today? 

Douglas Oberhelman
Caterpillar chairman and CEO

A This country needs more college graduates. The United States once had the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Today, we are fifth among other developed countries. In the last decade, many other countries have been on a steady, upward trajectory while we’ve remained flat.

More specifically for manufacturing, 65 to 70 percent of U.S. engineering jobs are created by manufacturing. That’s why graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are a key part of the talent pipeline Caterpillar needs, yet they have been declining since 2003.

As you can see, we have a vested interest in cultivating a strong pipeline of talent for our company — especially in STEM. Engineers and scientists will solve many of the challenges facing the world today through innovation and collaboration. As the world’s population continues to grow and standards of living improve in developing countries, technology will play an increasing role in our lives. 

Just think about how technology has changed Cat products. Today, our machines are powered as much by software as they are by fuel. This electronics sophistication is what optimizes engine and machine performance for improved efficiency, productivity, and durability. The electronic control modules on Cat large mining trucks have more than 500 million lines of software code — about the same computational power as the avionics on a U.S. Air Force fighter jet or a luxury automobile.

Bradley and other leading universities must prepare the next generation of engineers and scientists to meet the challenge of shaping technology to address the needs of the world while preserving the environment for future generations.

Q As a global leader, Caterpillar strives to hire the best engineers in the world. What differences have you found in young professionals who bring with them internship, senior capstone, and industry-related experiences? 

A Young professionals who graduate with an internship or some other industry-related experience have an advantage. They enter the workplace with a greater understanding of their interests and skills than their counterparts who have not had any exposure to the professional environment. This advantage allows them to better select positions where they will be successful. They also tend to distinguish themselves by their ability to quickly become contributing team members.

Doug Oberhelman, chairman and CEO of Caterpillar Inc., and President Joanne Glasser are photographed in front of an early track-type tractor located outside the History Hallway in Caterpillar’s Building CV in East Peoria.

Q Bradley added a four-year engineering degree to its curriculum in 1939, and senior capstone classes involving Caterpillar were added in the industrial manufacturing and engineering departments in the late 1960s. How has the continually evolving world of technology brought change to Caterpillar, and how do you see Bradley responding?  

At Caterpillar, our technology strategy’s focus never loses sight of what our research and development efforts can mean to our customers’ successes — today and in the future. We introduce technology that provides more value to our customers — be it fuel efficiency, overall lower owning and operating costs, or improved safety. 

We seek engineers who are also business people. Bradley has always been a good source of engineers who understand a business environment. The convergence concept will help to further develop this important pipeline of engineers who are business minded and can be productive members of a workforce from day one — be it at Caterpillar or elsewhere. 

Q In what ways will the planned convergence center and increased collaborative programming between faculty and students in the engineering and business departments better prepare Bradley graduates for real-world careers, especially at Caterpillar?

A For decades, the partnership between Caterpillar and Bradley University has been strong and has taken the form of practicums, research, scholarships, and continuing education opportunities — to name a few. We view the convergence model pairing the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology with the Foster College of Business Administration as the next unique and valuable step in higher education. 

It’s no longer enough in today’s world to be an expert in either engineering or business — the top talent will have expertise in both. We need college graduates prepared for the jobs that will be important in the future. We need innovators. We also need people who are trained and have hands-on experience working with the tools of their trade. Without that hands-on and practical application of technical skill, the learning curve for new engineers is steep.  

From left, Jim Owens, former Caterpillar chairman and CEO; Bradley President Joanne Glasser; and GERALD SHAHEEN ’66 MBA ’68, former chairman of the Bradley Board of Trustees and chairman of the Campaign for a Bradley Renaissance, celebrated the announcement of Caterpillar’s $30 million gift to the University during the Red Tie Gala at the Peoria Civic Center on April 24, 2008.

“Bradley has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with Caterpillar, and we are grateful for the company’s continuous commitment to the remarkable educational opportunities we provide our students,” President Glasser said when announcing the naming of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology on October 18, 2012.

Q What is your personal view of the power of collaboration between Caterpillar and Bradley, past, present, and future?

A At Caterpillar, we often talk about what we need to do to be competitive in the global economy. As a truly global company, we have a good perspective on what it takes for companies to win on the world stage. We advocate for things like free trade, competitive tax rates, and infrastructure investment. Those are our areas of expertise, but we also talk about education and the importance of public and private partnership, and partnerships between corporations and academic institutions. We must cultivate an environment where innovation is rewarded and can flourish. That will require government and the private sector to work together to fund research and support quality education in science and technology.

Caterpillar and Bradley have had a relationship for decades — we’re in each other’s backyards. We employ more Bradley University alumni than any other university. That’s a little more than 2,100 active employees who hold one or more degrees from Bradley walking the halls of our company. A majority of those are engineering, accounting, and business majors — the kind of in-demand graduates the future Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology and Foster College of Business Administration will continue to produce. 

A talented workforce is critical to Caterpillar’s financial success. We value our long-term relationships with Bradley and other leading institutions throughout the world and are committed to growing our relationships with these key universities.

View a timeline of highlights from the Bradley and Caterpillar relationship.

 – Karen Crowley Metzinger, MA ’97 
Photography by Duane Zehr