Certificate program developed in partnership with Marquette helps Milwaukee Tool employees thrive as systems engineers 

Through this partnership, Milwaukee Tool systems engineers ground their everyday work experience within a foundational framework.

Engineer Milwaukee Tool systems engineering certificate program
Jacob Johnson, design engineer II at Milwaukee Tool.

Jacob Johnson started working at Milwaukee Tool after earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Four years into his role as a battery development design engineer, he realized most of his job involved high-level design and integration of complex systems rather than detailed component design. These new technical challenges necessitated not only a new way of thinking; they emphasized the importance of effective collaboration with stakeholders and colleagues over inputs and outputs.  

“There aren’t many times I have to bring out my heat transfer equations,” Johnson says. “Most of the time, I’m thinking, ‘How do I frame this message in a presentation to executives who may not have engineering backgrounds?’ That’s what you do a lot of each day or solve complex issues that are more social than technical.” Johnson’s story echoes those of other engineers who have found that identifying needs and facilitating trade-offs requires a set of technical and professional skills not typically emphasized in undergraduate studies. 

Johnson and other Milwaukee Tool engineers grew into systems engineers — professionals who analyze and develop intricate systems to deliver greater efficiency, from start to finish — by necessity. But the company recognized the need for formal training to increase efficiency and innovation. That vision helped launch a partnership with the Opus College of Engineering to develop a 1½-year systems engineering graduate certificate program tailored to Milwaukee Tool employees.  

The collaboration emerged as part of a growing initiative in the Opus College to serve working professionals and corporate partners with new educational programs to meet their needs. Around the same time, Milwaukee Tool, which works with the university on other initiatives, wanted an academic partner to help design a specific systems engineering curriculum for its organization.  

“Systems engineering differs from much of engineering education where you’re given inputs and have a clear approach to solve the problem,” says Rob Suppiger, a systems engineering manager at Milwaukee Tool. “Systems engineers are the hub in the wheel of engineering. We’re not necessarily experts in any particular domain, but our responsibility is making sure everything works well together.” 

“We weren’t just looking for a unicorn, we wanted a whole herd of unicorns. Marquette has been an outstanding partner in this whole journey.” 

Rob Suppiger, systems engineering manager

For example, Suppiger says, technological updates might be available to improve a tool’s quality or function. The systems engineer would work with software engineers to get the new software onto the tool, and also with stakeholders to make sure the software updates effectively, is easy for consumers to complete, is cost effective and is secure against potential vulnerabilities, among other needs. The systems engineer works with other team leads to develop an appropriate structure to ensure the reprogramming process could meet everyone’s needs. 

Milwaukee Tool understood the importance of making that process more effective after experiencing growth resulting in $9 billion in revenue in 2023 and a workforce of more than 21,000. Suppiger said the organization needed not only good engineers, but engineers with a specialized skill set who fit the company’s culture.  
“We weren’t just looking for a unicorn, we wanted a whole herd of unicorns,” Suppiger says. “Marquette has been an outstanding partner in this whole journey.” 

The first cohort of 10 employees enrolled in fall 2022 and the second 10-person cohort will graduate this December. The program is looking to expand to 15 to 20 students per cohort.  

  • Systems engineering class, Dr. Phil Voglewede
    Dr. Phil Voglewede, professor of mechanical engineering, speaks to the first cohort of systems engineers in the certificate program.

“We’re extraordinarily happy to have the partnership,” says Dr. Mark Federle, professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering and associate dean for academic affairs in the Opus College of Engineering. “We’re thrilled we have a model of how to partner with companies and offer content that is more flexible and customized than traditional graduate programs.” 

The certificate consists of four courses, starting with an introduction to systems engineering open to anyone. The three other courses are exclusive to Milwaukee Tool employees: a custom “tools” course in which students learn how to find solutions to system design issues, an “essential skills” course that encourages interaction and collaboration with senior leadership, and a capstone course in which students work on a project for the company. Except for the intro course, many classes are held in Milwaukee Tool facilities, allowing Marquette’s teaching to blend directly with Milwaukee Tool’s culture and work environments. 

Marquette faculty teach or co-teach courses with Milwaukee Tool systems engineers. Marquette faculty involved in the effort include Federle; Dr. Philip Voglewede, professor of mechanical engineering; and Lisa Chase, assistant director of engineering education programs. Suppiger received a courtesy-appointed professorship to teach as well. 

“The certificate program gave me that context that was missing and validated that I had been using the right approach. I feel like I’m much more productive now.”

Michael Limburger, firmware engineer

Milwaukee Tool managers get creative in helping employees complete course work, from allowing them to dedicate a day for assignments each week or having them schedule classwork on their task trackers. The program was also designed to accommodate the lifestyle of working professionals, with online and hybrid courses mostly in the late afternoon. One course includes some in-person meetings at the Brookfield and Chicago branches to facilitate collaboration across the company.  

Milwaukee Tool firmware engineer Michael Lemberger, Eng ’04, says the certificate helped him become more efficient. He still uses the online repository he created in the tools course and shares it with his team, advancing everyone’s learning curve and saving time overall. 

“The concept of systems engineering was new to me, but when I looked at the course overview, it aligned with a lot I was doing throughout my career,” Lemberger says. “The certificate program gave me that context that was missing and validated that I had been using the right approach. I feel like I’m much more productive now.” 

By completing the systems engineering program, Milwaukee Tool employees also qualify for a credential from the International Council on Systems Engineering, without having to take a special INCOSE exam. They are fast-tracked for the credential based on the strength of the certificate program. 

Federle says the Milwaukee Tool partnership could be just the beginning for the systems certificate program at Marquette.  

“The Opus College of Engineering is very interested in partnering with companies wanting their engineers to earn the systems certificate or the other certificates offered by the Opus College,” he says.