The coming engineering shortage

The engineering industry must address the skills gap.

By Dan Carnovale, Eaton, Pittsburgh October 31, 2016

The electrical industry is at a crossroads. With thousands of power industry workers about to become eligible for retirement, experienced engineers will soon be leaving the industry. Once this happens, the industry will face a talent shortage that could leave companies scrambling to fill the gap.

Yet with every great challenge comes an opportunity. Though the threat of an engineer shortage is real, the electrical industry must leverage the current workforce’s experience and knowledge to prepare the electrical engineers of tomorrow by equipping them with the skills, tools, and experience they need to make the transition to the next generation as smooth as possible.

Facing the shortage of professional engineers

Make no mistake, the problem of the coming engineering shortage should not be underestimated. According to Economic Modeling Specialists International, about 25% of today’s electrical engineers are 55 years old or older.

This means it’s up to the next generation of electrical workers to take the reins and usher in a new era of engineering expertise. But this carries its own set of problems. Engineering programs are struggling with mentoring younger workers, who emerge from said programs overloaded with theory yet lacking the hands-on experience to hit the ground running. Apprenticeship numbers, which should ideally fill this role, continue to dwindle. According to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the economic downturn has driven apprenticeship recruitment to record low numbers—from 41,552 active apprentices in 2008 to 27,890 in 2012.

While the outlook is troubling, the industry can stem the tide and ready the next generation of skilled engineers for success.

What can the industry do?

Building a talent pool like this industry needs is time-consuming and urgent, but not impossible. It requires investing time, resources, and effort into better training for emerging engineers. This will prepare them to tackle the problems that only more experienced engineers were previously able to address.

There are three ways the industry can address the skills gap:

  • Make engineering exciting again. A way to fill a skills gap is to create a pipeline of new, skilled talent. The industry should partner with educational institutions down to the elementary and middle school levels to build excitement about the robust opportunities available in the field.
  • Emphasize growth potential. Electrical engineering has strong potential for job growth, and the industry and educators should harness this to make the career path attractive to students at the high school and university level.
  • Shift from theory to practice at the collegiate level. The industry and educational institutions need to collaborate to bridge the gap between classroom theory and real-world application. This means working together to create opportunities that give future engineers access to the tools and products they will be using in the professional environment.

Dan Carnovale is manager of Eaton Experience Centers, which focus on training young electrical engineers. He is an industry-recognized expert in power quality and energy management who has taught more than 100 technical seminars on the topics of power factor correction, surge protection, metering,