I was browsing through a number of online magazines, and I came across an article that was all too familiar: the shortage of engineering talent in the USA. I have read similar stories for many years, but nothing seems to improve.
Here’s the situation, briefly and maybe too simply. Engineers --- chemical, electrical, nuclear, and all the rest --- are the people who take basic science and turn it into products or services required by our society. We need engineers, lots of them. As our world grows more complex, as the human population continues to increase, we need people who can design products and find solutions that improve our standard of living. Without a body of talented engineers, America and every other country will suffer with a declining standard of living.
There are plenty of engineering jobs out there, more so than most other professions. But who will fill those jobs? According to Industry Week, US graduation rates for engineering students declined by 23% between 1985 and 2000. So what’s going on here?
You may not know it, but my first career was in engineering, followed by years in the information technology business, and then my current passion as a novelist. I graduated Columbia University with a shiny new master’s degree in nuclear engineering and went to work designing nuclear reactors for a giant corporation (which shall remain nameless) with a bunch of very bright young men and women. Should have been a great job, but it didn’t work out.
First of all, there was a lack of respect for the engineers. Senior management believed in the mushroom theory – keep everyone in the dark and drop fertilizer on them periodically. Not good for morale.
One day, a few months into the job, a senior engineer took me aside and explained the facts of working life to me. A woman, one of the few female engineers in those days. She explained that the young engineers were hired in with a fairly high salary, and would receive a good raise for the first year or two, but the money would dry up to at best a cost of living increase after four or five years. If I wanted a better salary, move from engineering to management.
Great but sobering advice for a young engineer. Lack of respect and lack of compensation. I loved computer programming, so I decided to move into IT, which was the right decision for me.
Americans continue to hold engineering in fairly low regard among a range of occupations. Harris polls show just a third of respondents consider engineering a prestigious occupation, a figure that has changed little or for the worse since 1977.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
So how does industry maintain an adequate supply of engineers? We import them, mostly from Europe, India and Asia. And they are excellent engineers, so industry comes out all right. But things are changing. An Asian engineer does not have to come to the USA to find work anymore; there’s plenty of work in their native lands.
I should finish this article with a call for more respect and better compensation for today’s young engineering graduates. Okay, I will. But it doesn’t matter. If a bright young person can make much more as a lawyer, it will be impossible to lure a sufficient number of Americans into engineering. And if we can’t import big numbers of foreign engineers, well, we’re in deep you know what.