Strong Demand for Engineering Grads

Engineering students learn about the vehicles we drive, the roads and bridges we drive them on, the buildings we live and work in, and the energy we consume. Engineering is the profession that makes virtually every aspect of our lives possible.

That's why the educational institutions that fuel its workforce are working to prevent an engineering shortage that some say is already here.

The Reality

In some areas of North America, oil and gas companies are hiring headhunters --"search and selection" firms -- to find qualified engineers to fill their job openings.

"In energy and infrastructure areas such as chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, mining engineering and petroleum engineering...those areas are experiencing extremely strong demand," says Dr. David Lynch. Lynch is dean of engineering at a university.

"There certainly is a demand that exceeds the supply for engineers in certain disciplines right now," says Dr. Albert Gray. He is the executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

"In civil engineering and mechanical engineering -- buildings, infrastructure, treatment systems, pipelines, things like that -- the number of projects that are being done or that are anticipated to be done over the next 20 years or so is extensive. And we're not graduating that many entry-level engineers."

Two factors weigh heavily: rapid industrial and technological growth; and a baby boomer generation that is aging and will have completely retired by 2030. Translation: engineering shortage.

Raising the Profile of a Profession

Few kids grow up dreaming of becoming engineers. Some unique educational programs are trying to change that.

Marc Bourgeois is director of communications for an engineering organization. He describes an annual event to raise the profile of engineering.

"Engineers go into schools and malls and do various kinds of engineering activities, such as spaghetti bridge-building, to try to initiate students to the field of engineering and get youth to discover the engineer in themselves."

The faculty of engineering students at one school run a program to discover engineering, called Discover E. "The program each year contacts thousands of students -- in the area of 10,000 students -- in grades four to eight, and provides them with information and presentations about engineering," says Lynch.

Discover E is a two-part program, offering in-school workshops during May and June, and week-long engineering camps during July and August. It also offers advanced workshops and camps in areas such as robotics and nanotechnology for high school students.

Still, raising the profile of the profession is slow going.

"The message that engineering can be an exciting career, that it is really the profession that is most responsible for public health, safety, welfare and quality of life has just not gotten through," says Gray. "[This is] particularly to students who are looking into the possibilities of various careers."

A little more attention from the popular media might help. Television dramas feature doctors, lawyers and criminal investigators. One that features engineers...what a profile raiser that would be!

Retaining Students

"Look at the person to the right of you. Look at the person to the left of you. One of them will drop out before graduation." Ask any engineer who attended university 20 years ago. They'll probably tell you that this was exactly what they kept hearing in first-year classes.

Gone are these scare tactics that served only to live up to their promises. Today, engineering programs are working hard to retain the students who enter.

"We probably graduate 75 percent of the students who enter the program," says Dr. Christi Patton. She is a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. "Some of them just find that the workload is too hard, and they voluntarily quit. But we feel like we do a really good job of only allowing in students who can succeed."

Lynch mentions two of his faculty's programs that help students make it to graduation. One is the engineering co-op program that provides students with 20 months of paid work experience while working on their degrees. The other is the Math and Applied Sciences Center where students can get extra help if they're having difficulties in subjects like math, chemistry and engineering physics.

The Missing Factor -- Still!

"In the United States, 9.9 percent of the practicing engineers out there are women," says Gray. "Even in engineering programs, the average female enrollment is about 20 percent. And then there's the attrition factor [women leaving their engineering jobs]. So, we end up with about 10 percent in the workforce. That hasn't changed significantly over the years."

It's certainly not for lack of trying.

Patton is involved in several projects geared towards attracting women to the profession. For example, she does engineering presentations for Girl Scout troops. But she points out a fundamental difference in how men and women choose their professions.

"Men are kind of attracted to the dollars," she says. "Women tend to choose careers so that they can make enough money to support themselves, but also so that they can feel good about what they're contributing to the world.

"In Tulsa we get a lot of women," Patton adds, "because we have some high-visibility projects where the students get to do things like creating a bicycle for a handicapped child. So they can see that mechanical engineering is making a contribution to society."

Highlighting the humanitarian aspects of engineering...maybe this is the key to bringing more women into the field.

As for the Future...

"Our economy is somewhat driven by the fact that we lead the world in technology," says Gray. "If we don't have the engineering expertise to maintain that lead, we're certainly going to see adverse economic effects."

An engineering shortage is bad news for industry and the economy, but it's great news for students who are choosing career paths. The pay is great and there are sure to be lots of jobs to choose from after graduation. But that's not all.

"The engineering education is actually one of the broadest educations that a student can receive," says Lynch. "Students will find that the skill set that comes through that engineering education is an incredible foundation for future success in any area of endeavor."

Engineering is a good choice for students. This is the message that industry and education are busy sending. And the more it gets through, the more of a win-win situation it is for everyone.