The state of engineering education

Get ready for the next wave of engineers—they may be a bit different than what you’re used to.

12/22/2011


In 2011, engineering firms have had difficulty finding engineers to fill two out of five open positions. While this is disheartening, enrollment and degrees awarded have been increasing for the past 10 years, but two-thirds of engineering graduates are moving into nontechnical fields. Why are so many young engineers moving away from their education and the engineering industry?

In a recent poll on www.csemag.com, consulting engineers responded that they have had difficulty finding enough experienced engineers and attracting young ones to open positions. As a new “type” of engineer graduates, engineering firms need to understand who’s coming out of universities and build a relationship early in order to pique their interests. This can be accomplished in several different ways, and boils down to one main point: Engineering firms need to invest more in educating engineers, if only for the selfish benefit of increasing the number of experienced, young engineers many firms are searching for.

Though engineering enrollment and degrees awarded have increased in the past 10 years, there is still large focus—and demand—on educating more engineers. The demographics of engineers in universities across the U.S. and the changes may be surprising. With increasing focus from the political side, engineering education has been thrust under a microscope to figure out what’s working and not. Some professors have acknowledged that the newest generation of students struggle with learning via traditional methods in traditional engineering curricula due to changes in educational development and modern technology.

Enrollment and degrees

According to a recent publication by the American Society for Engineer Education (ASEE), engineering, in terms of enrollment, attracted 20.33% more students in 2010 than in 2001 and increased 5.14% to 450,685 undergraduates in 2010. Engineering bachelor’s degrees have grown by 18.06% since 2001, hitting 78,347 awarded in 2010. For the majority of those years, degrees awarded increased yearly, with the biggest advances coming in a 6.16% increase in 2003 and 5.3% in 2010. These growths can be attributed to many different things: normal ebb and flow, increased focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, the focus/demand upon previously underdeveloped disciplines (such as metallurgical and materials, nuclear, and petroleum engineering), or new disciplines all together (like a hybrid civil/environmental degree).

Although these numbers seem to be doing well, a National Center for Education Statistics study indicated, “Engineering graduates increased 16.8% from 1998 to 2009, while the number of total gradates increased 33.4%.” This may be because students are finding acclimating to engineering education especially difficult because of the sheer amount of mathematics and science courses, with high numbers of turnover within the first two years of undergraduate programs. In this year’s ACT Condition of College and Career Readiness report, 45% of high school graduates are prepared for college-level mathematics and only 30% for science.

Figure 1: As engineering enrollment increases, degrees awarded show a similar increase, with a small lag. After 2010, we will probably see even larger rises in degrees awarded. Courtesy: ASEE

Mechanical and electrical engineering disciplines are two areas experiencing opposite trends, despite awarding the most and third most bachelor’s degrees, respectively, in 2010. While mechanical engineering has grown from 12,921 awarded bachelor’s degrees in 2001 to 18,391 degrees in 2010 (an increase of about 30%), electrical engineering has seen a 15% decline from 11,096 to 9,634 degrees in that same time frame.

Brian Self, professor of mechanical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, said, “Mechanical engineering will always be popular because it is so broad—nearly every design has some type of mechanical component.”  While Michael Gibbons, director of data collection and analysis at ASEE, said, “The ebb and wane of electrical engineering might be explained by residual ‘off shoring’ concerns that reached a peak in the U.S. around 2005,” and points out “this trend should ebb soon, based on the past three years of enrollment growth in these fields.”

Sex, race, and residency

From 2001 to 2010, women in engineering dropped 1.8% to 18.1% of bachelor’s degrees awarded. This trend held for six years, from 2003 to 2009, and regained 0.3% in 2010. Interestingly, women accounted for 22.6% of master’s degrees and 22.9% of doctoral degrees in 2010.

ASEE’s Gibbons said, “Women are well represented in disciplines such as environmental, biomedical, chemical, agricultural, industrial, and manufacturing engineering.” Schools like California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; Georgia Institute of Technology; North Carolina State University; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign all agreed. Gibbons added, “Combined, these five disciplines accounted for 18% of bachelor’s degrees in 2009. Women are least interested in the largest disciplines such as civil, computer science, computer engineering, electrical, and mechanical engineering. These five disciplines accounted for 66% of bachelor’s degrees in 2009.”

Figure 2: The percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded to foreign nationals has decreased steadily from 2001. Courtesy: ASEEMeanwhile, bachelor’s degrees awarded to foreign nationals have decreased 21.0% since 2001, most likely due to more international universities with STEM opportunities.

The face of engineering is changing the most in terms of race—with African Americans students declining 0.8% since 2006, Asian American students declining 1.9% since 2005, and Hispanic students increasing 1.6% steadily since 2004. Gary S. May, dean of the College of Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, agrees with these trends, adding, “Community colleges have gradually become an important pathway to an engineering bachelor’s degree.” According to the National Action Council for Minority Engineering, more than 11 million students are enrolled in one of the nation’s 1,173 community colleges each year. Typically students will attend a community college for two years then transfer to a four-year engineering college.

Employment

Engineering is consistently billed as a in-demand, hard-to-fill field. Information from ManpowerGroup listed engineering positions as in-demand jobs. Engineers ranked No. 2 in 2006 and No. 4 in 2011. Employers are citing “lack of technical skills as the largest issue, followed by lack of experience, and lack of business knowledge or formal qualifications” as reasons for difficulty in filling positions.

In recent articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, young engineers are switching majors or graduating with engineering degrees and moving into management fields at alarming paces.

A major point of contention for young engineers is pay—why bother with four to five years of an intense STEM program when you can make more by going into business or management? Although engineering disciplines offer higher starting pay, salaries down the road cannot remain competitive against fields such as business and management. This requires engineering programs to develop engineers striving to make a difference (a huge necessity for the millennial generation) and really love what they do.

Another reason engineers are moving away from STEM fields have to do with difficulty transitioning to math- and science-heavy fields. This is squarely on the shoulders of the education system, but can be assisted by engineering firms. There needs to be more development into STEM education and far earlier on, so that when students are looking into STEM programs, they have the appropriate foundation to handle this transition. This point will require engineering firms to reevaluate expectations for incoming engineers.

Dr. Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said, “Companies need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice.” While, the U.S. cannot drastically change its apprenticeships to a more European style (we simply lack the infrastructure to do so manageably), engineering firms can work to reach out to young engineers more.

Some methods for increasing potential pools of candidates include:

  • Work with education providers: Set up a program with a school to tailor students to your (and presumably, other firms’) needs.

  • Bring some parts of apprenticeships: Offer longer probationary periods, with lower pay, until they reach requirements of the job.

  • Promote from within: Internal promotions are often missed for fear of the transition not working or the employee not meeting skills to suit the new position. This can be accomplished by offering tasks that ease them into new skills. 

Many educators point to co-ops, internships, and hands-on learning. Jerome P. Lavelle, associate dean of academic affairs within the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University, said, “It is clear that students who differentiate themselves through participation in co- or extra-curricular experiences are better prepared to add value to potential employers and create an advantage when competing for open positions.”

This not only prepares young engineers for future employment, but allows them to see what they’ll be doing once they graduate. This could also assist in lowering the amount of science/engineering students graduating and not entering the STEM job market. According to a 2007 study by Georgetown University professor B. Lindsay Lowell and Rutgers University professor Hal Salzman, about two-thirds of college engineering graduates do not pursue jobs in engineering after graduation.

The future

Courtesy: Marc Hall, North Carolina State UniversityGeorgia’s May said, “Our objective must be to empower our students to be independent learners and fearless in the face of complex problems. To accomplish this, the educational experience must maximize flexibility, have a multidisciplinary orientation, and encourage thinking that facilitates the creation of solutions.”

This requires programs to continue to emphasize hands-on learning and more real world problem solving. A great way for consulting engineers currently in the field is to give feedback to colleges; there needs to be more interaction with engineering firms because that is, after all, who college is preparing young engineers for.

In recent years, some courses have moved to more self-directed and integrated programs, changing how courses are configured. Liz Schlemer, an associate professor of industrial and manfuacturing Engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, said, “It is very different now; access to information has changed the way students discover. They often will know more about a subject than the faculty members. This means the faculty member’s role will move from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide by the side.’”

Others believe that looking only at college is not aggressive enough in meeting employment needs. Kurt Anderson, associate dean for undergraduate studies and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said, “We must do a better job at the middle school and high school levels of conveying to students what engineering is and what engineers do.” There are already a few programs geared for future engineers; the National Engineers Week Foundation features several programs which focus on several aspects of engineering and geared towards grade school students with special programs for young women. The programs offered also give younger students an insight into the possibilities of engineering degrees. Other programs. like FIRST, offer competitions focused on specific subject areas like robotics to engage young engineers. Programs like FIRST have been highlighted by President Obama as part of the America Invents Act.

As firms transitions to hiring more engineers of Generation Y or Millennials, there also needs to be consideration into what is important to them. Charles L. Tucker III, Alexander Rankin professor and associate dean in the College of Engineering of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, adds that many students want to make the world a better place, often on the environmental side in programs like Engineers Without Borders. These programs often do not have enough spaces for students. He sees students starting their own programs to accommodate this need.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Anderson added, “More emphasis will be placed on large ‘grand challenge’ applications and the multidisciplinary nature of real-world significant problems.”

Demographics will continue to see changes as community colleges assist students as they transition to universities for bachelor’s degrees. Georgia’s May said, “Over the next 3 to 5 years, the number of Hispanic students pursuing engineering will continue to increase as well as the pathway selected to obtain an engineering degree will become more diverse.”

The number of women in engineering will probably change due to college outreach programs that attract more women to disciplines not often considered. These numbers are especially encouraging as more women fill leadership roles in companies and obtain higher degrees.

Engineering firms need to be involved with education programs because there is no one-way street; in order to fill roles more adequately, there needs to be a certain focus on arming young engineers with the correct skills to succeed in the workplace. This can be accomplished by more internships, co-ops, assistance for entry level/ new graduates, and starting sooner to attract students to careers in STEM fields.

The face of engineering will be changing in the next 10 years to a new breed of engineer, and industry will have to make the changes to accept their skills and ideals.

Gianos is a Content Specialist for Consulting-Specifying Engineer. He graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Civil Engineering, Marquette University 2009.


Bibliography

ACT, Condition of College and Career Readiness.

American Society for Engineering Education, 2010 ASEE Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges.

Anderson, Kurt. Interview by author. Email. November 2, 2011.

Cappelli, Dr. Peter. “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need.” Wall Street Journal. 24 October 2011.

Drew, Christopher. “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just so Darn Hard).” The New York Times. 4 November, 2011.

Gibbons, Michael S. Interview by author. Email. October 28, 2011.

Lavelle, Jerome P. Interview by author. Email. November 2, 2011.

Light, Joe and Rachel Emma Silverman. “Generation Jobless: Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay.” The Wall Street Journal. 9 November, 2011.

Lynn, Leonard and Harold Salzman. "The Real Global Technology Challenge." Change. July/August 2007, 9-13. 

Manpowergroup. Talent Shortage 2011 Survey Results.

May, Gary S. Interview by author. Email. November 2, 2011.

National Center for Education Statistics. Undergraduate Fields of Study (Indicator 40-2011).

Samuelson, Kristin. “High-skill job openings abound.” The Chicago Tribune. 3 October 2011.

Schlemer, Liz. Interview by author. Email. October 28, 2011.

Self, Brian. Interview by author. Email. October 28, 2011.

Tucker, Charles L. III. Interview by Amara Rozgus. Phone. October 14, 2011.

Additional assistance provided by:

The American Society for Engineering Education; Amy B. Hewes, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispos; Kay L. Kinard, Georgia Institute of Technology; Nate DeGraff, North Carolina State University; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign



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