September 12, 2007

Finding workers may be engineering’s biggest challenge

  • The ability to meet engineering demands over the next 50 years may be severely limited by the low percentage of the population interested in the profession.
    Herrera Environmental Consultants


    What do Sputnik, the laser and global warming have in common? All three share a 50th anniversary with ACEC. The year 1957 marked a tremendous number of inventions and discoveries driven by engineers and scientists.

    According to an article on the year 1957 in U.S. News & World Report, here are some of the highlights:

    • The Soviet Union’s success with Sputnik was a wake up call to the United States — it launched a massive investment in science and engineering that led to the U.S. putting a man on the moon in 1969.

    • The first design for the laser was born at Columbia University — an invention that would revolutionize industry and result in 13 Nobel Prizes.

    • The concept of global warming began with an article in the journal Tellus. It claimed humans were releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than the oceans could absorb it, increasing the greenhouse effect.

    While the debate over the extent of and solutions for global warming continues 50 years later, one thing is certain — it will take a highly educated cadre of engineers and scientists to meet the challenges it presents to the world.

    The next 50 years will be exciting times for engineers — demand and opportunities for engineering and science expertise is high. Many recent articles focus on the nation’s failing infrastructure, global warming and maintaining our position as a global leader in innovation and engineering. However, our ability to meet these challenges may be severely limited by the low percentage of the population interested in engineering, and particularly our ability to attract underrepresented groups such as women and minorities.

    The number of A/E degrees awarded in the U.S. has declined over the last 20 years, even including the number of foreign students studying here. Approximately half of the foreign doctorate students have remained in the U.S. As other countries accelerate the growth of their engineering programs, they are increasingly wooing these students back.

    Although the percentage of women and minorities in A/E jobs has increased over the last 20 years, it remains much lower than the percentage of these groups in the general population. Other professions such as business, law and medicine have been more successful than engineering in increasing participation from these groups.

    When the increasing demand for engineers is combined with the decreasing number of engineering degrees granted — along with the increased retirement rate of baby boomers over the next 15 years — it is clear we must develop a larger pool of incoming engineers. We also need to focus on retaining experienced engineers and becoming more flexible in order to meet future staffing challenges.

    Increasing the ranks

    Why aren’t more young people interested in engineering as a career? Why don’t minorities and women see engineering as an intriguing career option? The answers are varied but a few themes are consistent.

    Engineering has much more impact on our daily life than many other fields. Our roads and mass transit systems, our iPods, and the machines that scan and identify our medical conditions all involved extensive work by engineers. Yet many people think of engineering as a boring career.

    Smart kids who are interested in science are frequently portrayed on television and movies as outcasts, geeks or nerds. Rarely are any adult engineers featured. If the adults’ careers are included in the story line, it is much more common to see a doctor, attorney or financier. A recent episode of the Disney channel’s preteen hit “The Suite Life of Zak and Cody” equates the job of a sanitary engineer to the job of a garbage collector — not likely to entice the kids watching to consider engineering as a good career choice!

    Other reasons for the lack of interest in engineering careers include inadequate math and science preparation in the early grades, few role models for women and minorities along with little guidance and mentoring, a lack of financial resources, and lower salaries as compared to other fields that require intensive study such as law and medicine.

    Many groups are trying to increase the number of students in engineering and science by:

    • Increasing interest in math and science throughout elementary and secondary schools.

    • Exposing more young people to the idea of being an engineer.

    • Providing mentoring, financial aid, cluster groups and role models to unrepresented minority groups during their education and as they enter the workforce.

    • Generating positive media portrayals of engineers and scientists and people who are good at math and science.

    Making a difference

    The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering is seeking to develop and support middle-school-to-workplace strategies to expand the diversity of the nation’s technical, science and engineering workforce. The group’s Vanguard Engineering Scholarship Program has been successful in recruiting, assessing and enrolling minorities in undergraduate engineering programs. Included are students that typically don’t have prior exposure to engineering careers.

    A number of organizations sponsor scholarships and programs designed to get girls interested in math and science, including ACEC’s Tiny Truss program. Also, the Society of Women Engineers’ WOW! That’s Engineering! program pairs middle and high school girls with female engineers and technicians to give them career path ideas.

    Numerous studies and ideas for improving the pool of students with math and science skills high enough to enter an engineering degree program are available. Two examples are “Meeting the Need for Scientists, Engineers and an Educated Citizenry in a Technological Society” ( and “Ensuring a Strong U.S. Scientific Technical and Engineering Workforce in the 21st Century” (


    Once engineers are trained, retaining them in the profession takes additional effort. Minority and women engineers drop out of the profession at a higher rate than others, citing reasons such as lack of family friendly and part-time options and lack of women and minority peers and mentors. Many of the strategies described in the references above apply to retention issues as well.

    Flexible staffing

    Successful companies in the future will likely have many more part-time and contract workers, taking advantage of recent retirees who want part-time work, as well as parents who want more time with their families. Remote employee arrangements will grow, allowing companies to take advantage of engineers who choose to live in non-metropolitan areas. Contract arrangements with recently retired baby boomers on specific projects will be more common. Companies will likely engage in aggressive training programs to bring less experienced workers up to speed faster.

    Just as the engineering workforce and project delivery systems are substantially different today than they were 50 years ago, the engineering workforce is likely to look much different in the future. Flexibility will be key.

    Carol Slaughterbeck, PE, is the vice president of operations at Herrera Environmental Consultants and a board member of ACEC Washington.

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