He points to the level of online “bonding,” augmented by two weeklong “residences” on campus, among the student team members. With one team member online in Saudi Arabia, he notes the logistical challenges. Reid says he is imparting lessons learned to his own 12-person workforce.

At age 50, Charles Gullakson opted for a virtual return to his undergraduate engineering alma mater, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to participate in its new online master's program, specializing in transportation engineering. Assistant construction chief engineer for CSX Transportation in Jacksonville, Fla., he jumped at the chance to gain the extra degree without relocating.

“With the railroad industry expanding, I felt the need to sharpen my skills,” he says. “CSX is paying my tuition. When I asked, there was no hesitation.”

William G. Buttlar, who heads the Illinois program, says online instruction uses a split-screen approach for the lecturer and presentation materials. He says some online students have participated in “live” review sessions in real time. “We continually have to emphasize that our online classes are the same classes offered in our top-ranked campus program,” says Buttlar. “One challenge we face is a negative perception of online learning.”

It was an easy decision for Sean McIlwee, a 23-year-old structural engineer in a Chicago consulting firm. An Illinois engineering graduate, he already knew the program would be rigorous. “Why do this? I think of it as, why not do this?” he says. “I absolutely support the concept of lifelong learning in a field as complex and intricate as engineering is. I would be doing myself a disservice by not actively pursuing this.” He says his employer is now paying half of his tuition.

Contractor Kiewit Corp.'s approach to LL has been touted as an industry model as delivered by its broad-based Kiewit “university,” which is staffed by some 400 in-house experts and represents an investment of more than $5,600 per salaried employee, says the firm. “We hire people for a career, and we have to provide opportunities for them to grow into the next position,” says Jim Rowings, a Kiewit vice president and chief learning officer who heads the four-year-old university. He formerly ran the construction program at Iowa State University. “A lot of training supports the trajectories of the company,” he says. “We see it as part of our culture.”

The training ranges from programs for those in the first three years of employment to the firm's two-year executive leadership course, which involves three one-week training sessions in-house and one at a “top” business school, whose name Rowings declines to reveal. “We have unique technical expertise in the company and want to advance that,” he says. “You won't find it at any university. We promote people quickly and have to keep the training up.”

Parsons Brinckerhoff considers LL “intrinsic to who we are,” says George Pierson, chairman and CEO. “We like to tackle the most difficult problems and have the best and brightest doing it.” The firm's own in-house university lists “thousands of courses” for its engineers and non-technical staff, such as those in business development, he says. PB also has extended its training to employees of its new parent firm, U.K.-based contractor Balfour Beatty.

But NAE says sustaining LL is tough for small and medium firms, even though companies with 500 or fewer employees represent 98% of all U.S. business. The academy cites firms' “short-term focus” due to market pressures and their “fear” that more mobile employees will take training to competitors. NAE calls for stronger public-private collaboration, more high-profile LL marketing and better measures of its value. De la Garza advocates “a national memo of understanding” to build better “infrastructure” for LL in all states. Engineer Patricia Galloway is optimistic that the workshop “will produce a blueprint for these concerns, with a reasonable plan of action that can be taken to stakeholders,” she says. “How can we get this translated into more than just a research report?”

But for some engineers, LL may be taking a different track than NAE's desired course. Fred Ross, 77, who retired in 1996 as chief engineer for Wisconsin's transportation department, opted to expand his horizons in English literature, in which he earned a Ph.D. while on the job. He now teaches the subject in a University of Wisconsin “participatory learning” group that has nearly 1,000 members. “Sometimes I get fire in the belly to tackle engineering problems, ” Ross says. “But I don't want to go back.”