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Together for the Long Haul
Author: John Kirkland
Posted: January 27, 2017

Partnering with Daimler Trucks is giving students experience and jobs.

Imagine a convoy of six tractor-trailer rigs driving down I-5 so close together that the lead truck drastically cuts the wind resistance—and, thus, fuel costs—for those that follow. 

NOW IMAGINE that the trucks are driving themselves.

That’s the new reality coming out of Daimler Trucks North America, headquartered on Portland’s Swan Island. It was the first company in North America to produce a self-driving truck, one of which was prominently displayed at PSU’s Simon Benson Awards dinner in November. 

Many of the bright people creating this new reality are Portland State alumni. 

The University and Daimler have had a long, mutually beneficial relationship that has helped shape the curriculum of the business and engineering schools and has produced internships and high-paying jobs for grads. Daimler even bought a company started by PSU students: GlobeSherpa, a mobile app that lets users buy TriMet tickets. PSU and Daimler (formerly Freightliner) are now formalizing the relationship by forming a strategic partnership that could expand Daimler’s presence in other parts of the University. 

PSU has strategic partnerships with nine other business and government entities to fulfill shared economic, social and environmental goals in the Portland metro region. Daimler becomes the tenth.

Blake Kashiwagi, the director of mechatronics engineering, is one of the hundreds of PSU alumni working at Daimler. He earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at PSU in 2003. His specialty at Daimler—mechatronics—melds several interconnected engineering fields, including mechanical, electrical and software for the purpose of integrating electronics with all parts of the trucks.

“We’re designing the nervous system of the vehicle,” he says. 

Mechatronics is what makes self-driving trucks possible, and is a reason why Daimler is supporting a scholarship, begun two years ago, for students to study it at PSU and then go on to an internship at Daimler to apply what they’ve learned. 

“When students go through that experience, they really understand the technology inside these trucks,” Kashiwagi says.

In addition to engineers, the company also employs many PSU business alumni, including Lori Heino-Royer MBA ’02, who heads the company’s business innovation department; colleague Katie Tucker MBA ’16; and Finian Small ’08, who works in supply chain management—a fast-growing field involved in planning and oversight of a company’s entire supply chain, from people and activities, to resources and products.

“You could walk through that department and at least half the employees would be PSU alums,” says Small.

THE UNIVERSITY received advice from leaders at Daimler, Nike, Boeing and other companies when it was designing its Global Supply Chain Management graduate degree, which launched in fall 2013. The executives expressed what they wanted from graduates, and helped guide the curriculum.

“Daimler wasn’t looking for supply chain people who only knew traditional things like procurement, planning and logistics. They were looking for people to think strategically, similar to what engineers are thinking about in terms of design,” says Cliff Allen, dean of PSU’s School of Business Administration. “They wanted an emphasis on leadership, which is hugely important when you’re taking a holistic view of something.”

Allen sees a long road ahead with Daimler, with the truck maker helping to keep PSU tuned in to the needs of business, and with PSU placing more and more of its graduates in the company’s Swan Island headquarters. The very fact that Allen, or any business dean, leans on outside businesses for insight is essential to staying current in what the University teaches. 

“At Portland State, we are very, very ingrained in the community. We can’t and should not ignore what community members need from us,” Allen says. “They very much want to be involved with us because they want talent, they want access to researchers, and they would like to understand what it is they may be missing in the world of business.”

He points out that executives from many companies, including Daimler, give guest lectures at PSU on a regular basis.

“When you go to Portland State as a student, you have access to vice presidents and CEOs in your classrooms every day. That hugely impacts your educational experience. It’s what our students want,” he says.

EMPLOYMENT at Daimler isn’t restricted to engineering and business. Stefanie Lechner, who graduated from PSU in March 2013, got her degree in applied linguistics with a minor in psychology. She’s German, and liked the idea of working for a German company (Daimler’s main headquarters are in Stuttgart). Her initial goal when she came to the United States was to become an English teacher. At Daimler, she gets to speak German and has been involved with employee training.

Lechner is one of the 1,100 people (out of 2,800 Daimler employees in Portland) working in a brand new, $150 million LEED Platinum building on the banks of the Willamette River. The inside is open, airy and full of amenities such as ping pong tables, lounges, a fitness center and a cafeteria that, according to Lechner, serves excellent food. The outside is nicely landscaped, and employees can recharge by taking long walks on the riverside trails.

“Work-life balance is a big topic here,” she says.

The building opened in May, taking the place of a more traditional office building.

“In the former building, everyone had their own silos,” says Finian Small. “The company’s effort is to become more flexible and open. The point of this building was to get everyone working in the same world.”

That world will include more PSU grads as the partnership between the University and Daimler continues to evolve. For Renjeng Su, dean of PSU’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, the relationship is a natural.

“We produce two things: people and ideas. And they produce technology and products,” he says. “I see this as a very strong marriage.” 

John Kirkland is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Captions: 100+ PSU alumni work at Daimler Trucks on Swan Island, including business grads (left to right) Yelena Ibadul MIM ’13, Nikol Marinova ’13, Stefanie Lechner ’13 and Scott Sutton ’08, MIM ’13. Photos by NashCO Photography.

Lori Heino-Royer MBA ’02 is director of the Business Innovation and Program Management office at Daimler Trucks North America, where she has worked since 2001.