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November 16, 2000

Thriving engineering field competes for tech talent

  • Brain drain to high tech threatens future of infrastructure, environment
    Consulting Engineers Council of Washington

    For many in this industry, these are the best of times. During most of the last decade, engineering firms have enjoyed unprecedented growth. There have been a few speed bumps — such as I-695 — but most engineers have barely slowed down in the quest to meet new challenges and improve quality of life in the region. The economic outlook continues to be strong. And our legislators may yet find a way, working together, to adequately fund transportation solutions and public infrastructure.

    But there is a dark cloud on the horizon: The shortage of talented people entering the industry is jeopardizing our ability to deliver the keys to the future, from solving transportation problems to saving salmon.

    Young people, especially college students, are lured by the promise of riches in the high-tech industries. Many of the best and brightest students with a penchant for math and science, focus more on computer science than the engineering disciplines.

    According to Anne Symonds, founder of Sy-monds Consulting Engineers Inc. and chair of the Consulting Engineers Council of Washington education and diversity task force, “There are very few drafters training in AutoCAD coming into our industry today because with similar skill sets young people think that they can make better money and have more excitement in the high-tech industries.”

    However, with the change in fortunes of many of the dot-com companies recently, it’s obvious that the excitement is fraught with high risk as well. While the engineering industry cannot mirror the employee benefits offered in high-tech firms, engineers can hold out the promise of a wholesome, meaningful career. Gary Bourne, a principal with Berryman & Henigar, is one of many engineers today working to meld the professional disciplines of software and engineering. “The next step for consulting engineers is to take on many of the I-T functions previously reserved for software developers,” says Bourne. “It takes engineers to interpret and efficiently apply many software programs.

    Many engineering specialties merge the high-tech and engineering disciplines. Technological areas such as telehealth, audio/video, tele-communications, data centers and networking have grown exponentially in response to the needs of a client base of high-tech and tech-savvy businesses. “The technical knowledge and design expertise for electrical engineering and technology systems are closely related and frequently overlap, putting firms like Sparling in a great position to provide much-needed, specialized services to cutting-edge firms,” said Jim Duncan, CEO of Sparling. Consequently, in all engineering disciplines there is a need to seek engineers with experience in technology and also technologists and project managers with experience in engineered systems.

    Jerry Williams, executive vice president of Wood/Harbinger and current CECW president finds it harder and harder to find both experienced and new talent because of the vibrancy of the industry. “One way of recruiting talent is to utilize paid internships for college students,” said Williams, “but we also need to reach further out into the community.”

    “We need to ignite young people’s interest long before they reach college,” said Jim Miller of GeoEngineers, who was drawn to engineering as an elementary school student interested in earth sciences and geology. Other engineers agree, citing their own experiences with teachers who recognized their penchant for learning how things work.

    Programs like the public television series “Building Big” are designed to present complex engineering theory in a manner that can be easily understood by children of all ages. The series and book engage the imagination and get people thinking about structures they see and use every day.

    There are also a myriad of national programs such as Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA), Smart Girls, and MATHCOUNTS that encourage young people, especially young women, to explore and expand their math and science aptitudes. CECW sponsors a “Tiny Truss” building competition with local girl scouts to further young women’s interest in engineering.

    “Women and minorities are our greatest untapped source of new employees,” says Symonds. As an industry, we need to encourage these underrepresented populations to stay in school and to focus on math and science courses while they are there.

    “Part of the reason lies in engineers’ self-perceptions,” says Karen Erne of GeoEngineers. “I’ve heard many engineers respond to questions about what they do as not all that exciting. After all, for the most part people can’t see it.”

    We can’t live without what engineers do, so they need to be reenergized about their value, so they can communicate it effectively to others.

    There is another great challenge for the engineering profession in both gaining visibility and attracting talented young people: Engineering is very fragmented. Architects are almost universally represented by the American Institute of Architects. By contrast, there are hundreds of engineering societies that represent specific types of engineers, but they are not united in their efforts.

    The engineering professions will not likely be able to compete with high-tech industries in terms of benefit packages and stock options. But there are some encouraging signs that we are seeing an up-tick in numbers of students attracted to engineering. And there are good reasons why.

    As a career, it’s an attractive package. Engineering offers the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology. But it offers something far more valuable over a career and a lifetime — the opportunity to have a significant impact in everything, from reclaiming water resources and saving endangered species to developing systems that ensure health and life safety.

    While these signs are encouraging, it is really up to engineers themselves to tell their stories — not only to students and their teachers, but to the general public as well. In order to attract the best and brightest, members of the profession must show just what it is this career path has to offer.

    Bill Garrity is executive director of the Consulting Engineers Council of Washington.

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