In an exclusive interview, Joe Payer talks about the corrosion program at the University of Akron (UA), its genesis, the supporters and an innovative workforce development curriculum designed to prepare corrosion engineers for the real world. Payer is chief scientist at the UA's new undergraduate program in corrosion engineering. The nation’s first baccalaureate program of its kind, the UA’s five-year program is fresh out of the starting gate; its inaugural students received their B.S. degrees in May 2015.

Payer is an internationally recognized expert in corrosion and materials performance, and the former president of NACE International.

In today’s economy, many colleges are cutting back on programs. Why did the UA decide to create a new corrosion engineering program now?

A couple of factors played large at the beginning of the initiative. One: the annual cost of corrosion worldwide is now estimated at $400 billion, a problem that is a major concern for the federal government, the Department of Defense, and industry leaders across several sectors, including oil & gas, chemical, potable water/wastewater, transportation, marine and more.

The second factor was the glaring need for workforce development in the corrosion sector. Many of the world’s field experts are nearing retirement age, and they’re asking: “Where is the next generation of corrosion experts going to come from?” Right now, there are not enough young professionals coming up in the ranks to fill their shoes.

What agencies and industry players contributed to the genesis of the program?

Early on, the pull came from a number of NACE industry members. They approached UA officials to discuss the tremendous need for a rigorous academic program focused on corrosion and workforce development, and UA president, Luis M. Proenza agreed to look at the problem.

Around the year 2000, the Department of Defense conducted a corrosion cost study to quantify what they had known for years—that corrosion was a huge financial drain on the national and military infrastructure.

A few years later, individuals at the newly established Corrosion Policy and Oversight (CPO) unit stepped up and said that if the University of Akron would create a corrosion engineering program, they would support it financially. The CPO now also supports program development, corrosion and materials research, scientific collaboration, and aids in placing students in internships and employment opportunities after graduation.

How does the program prepare students for the real world?

Our students get a leg up on what corrosion engineers really do.

The program comprises a traditional four-year degree in corrosion engineering academics, plus one year of practical experience internships, which we call co-op assignments. Students perform their single-semester internships in two or three chunks during their five years at the UA. It’s an excellent complement to our academic classroom and lab learning experience.

The curriculum focuses on chemical, electrochemical and biomolecular engineering, and uses the apprentice learning model in both course sequence and cooperative education. Students take on increasing project management responsibility each year, getting them ready to make an impact in the workplace from day one.

Is the industry poised to hire specially trained graduates in the field?

I believe the industry is crying for well-trained recruits. A recent study by the National Association of Corrosion Engineering found that 81% of corrosion-related employers would prefer to hire an engineer with a specialized undergraduate degree in corrosion.

Tell us about your role in establishing the program?

When I came on board four years ago, the work of getting the program in place had already started, and continues today—putting in new laboratories and significant equipment, developing the curriculum, recruiting teaching staff, and recruiting students.

We now have three full-time tenure-track faculty members and we also have non-tenure support instructors and an executive director, Sue Rauscher.

And, we’ve been fortunate in getting scholarships from the industry and government to help us attract students. The program itself retains students as they see early on that the industry is interested and supportive as they’re moving through. Of course, the job pull is a main attraction for students.

Which industries have been most supportive?

It’s really a cross-section of the NACE membership, all divisions of the military, the DOD, the CPO, the Corps of Engineers and others operating naval facilities that include ships, piers, pipelines, port structures, etc.

We’ve had excellent recognition and support from the oil & gas exploration, production and pipeline. British Petroleum and Mears Group have been major contributors.

Carboline Company, a leading producer of protective coatings, supports an endowed faculty chair and also provides support for labs and scholarships.

Our students now intern in a number of companies, including pipeline, protective coatings, chemical processing and more. Really, you could take a snapshot of the NACE technical committees, and they’re showing interest in our program.

Will research play a part in the future?

Yes, research is an integral part of our three-phase development, which includes educating undergraduates, a research program for postgraduates, and outreach training for the corrosion community at large.

About two years ago, the federal government recognized the UA’s program, and established the National Center for Education and Research on Corrosion and Materials Performance on our campus. The research studies are well-funded, currently looking at traditional types of corrosion, protection methods, coatings, cathodic protection, alloys and behaviors.

The outreach arm hosts periodic forums, workshops and seminars. A major thrust of this part of the program is to advance and develop models for corrosion degradation, which have promise in making life prediction, risk assessment and performance assessments possible—taking the state of the art to a higher level of reliability, safety and flexibility.

In addition, we’re developing a course on risk management of corrodible structures, using industry risk management methodologies to teach students that perspective. We’re adapting these tools for case studies to assess real-world successes and failures, just to raise their awareness.