US Engineering Crisis Looms

September 16, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Valley State University's Padnos College of Engineering and Computing defies common perception: The bulk of its graduates find work in the manufacturing sector. The persistent demand for talent has even forced an expansion that administrators expect will reach capacity immediately.

"We could double the size of our engineering program and still not meet the local need," said Dean Paul Plotkowski. "When you talk about manufacturing going elsewhere, you're not talking about skilled labor or engineering and computer jobs.

"The people who make those systems and design them — the high-education, value-added jobs — those are staying here."

Smiths Aerospace, for instance, has tripled its West Michigan engineering population in only five years. Now 1,100 strong, it will hire an additional 100 to 150 engineers this year, 75 of those from co-op and internship programs.

Perhaps West Michigan manufacturing's greatest success in recent years, Smiths has shared its growth with GVSU. It will absorb more Padnos graduates this year than any other local employer.

"We've got a very strong talent pool here," said Smiths Vice President of Engineering and Technology John Alber. "There is a lot more competition locally for talent, and it's going to be a continued growth area."

According to GVSU's Annual Career Employment Report, the engineering major placed the highest percentage of 2003-2004 graduates, beating out hot fields like accounting and nursing when measured against total graduates. Of alumni survey respondents, GVSU placed 91 percent of its engineers. In 2002-2003, it placed 95 percent.

At GVSU, all engineering majors are required to complete a year of work experience before graduation. Roughly two-thirds of the students stay with their co-op employers; the rest are snapped up by recruiters at starting salaries above $50,000.

Smiths hires mostly computer and electrical engineers to work in its West Michigan operation. The Padnos engineering college also includes mechanical and product design programs.

All of these disciplines are increasingly sought outside the goods-producing sector — in the energy field, building trades, the public sector and municipalities — and Plotkowski fears that the nation may not be up to filling the need.

"Tapping America's Potential: The Education for Innovation Initiative," a report released in July authored by 15 of the nation's most influential agencies, portrayed some disturbing trends concerning the U.S. share of global brainpower. By 2010, more than 90 percent of the world's scientists and engineers will live in Asia. South Korea, with one-sixth the population, graduates as many engineers as the United States

More than 50 percent of all engineering doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. engineering colleges are to foreign nationals, even as security concerns are reducing the number of foreign students.

The number of engineering degrees awarded in the United States is down 20 percent from the peak year of 1985.

America has not surrendered its scientific edge since it was shocked by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the first Earth orbit satellite, nearly 50 years ago, the report noted, but history is dotted with world economies that declined because of "myopic, self-determined choices."

Virtually every major organization representing business, research and education, as well as government agencies and commissions, has extensively documented the erosion of U.S. science, technology and engineering.

China graduates four times as many engineers as the United States. Funding for basic research in life science has declined by half as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Of the 1.1 million high school seniors who took a college entrance exam in 2002, just under 6 percent indicated plans to pursue engineering — a 33 percent drop from the previous decade, according to the report.

With employers increasingly interested in hiring people who can lead innovation, the discrepancy between talent supply and demand will grow more pronounced, the report said.

"The same things we've been saying for many years," Plotkowski said of the report. "The field is challenged as a whole, and I point the finger back at (the news media)."

In the recent past, dominant headlines have detailed a health-care shortage and growth in biomedical and health sciences. National enrollment patterns show that parents and students have reacted to the news.

"The problem is that the press is five years too late," he said. "Today's shortage, that's the freshmen five years ago. By the time students graduate, we're on the other end of the cycle. It's cyclic. When I was young, it was the space race, but in the last few years, all you hear is that manufacturing is gone and the future is biomedical."

That is one of engineering's biggest problems: its image.

When a life is saved on a television medical drama, little thought is given to the team of mechanical and electrical engineers that developed the CAT scan. Childhood dreams of being a pilot seldom give way to designing an airplane's internal systems.

Plotkowski said the engineering behind the cellular phone, running water, electricity, cooling and so on is never appreciated — until it stops working.

"All the work is taken for granted until the bridge falls down," agreed Tim Greene, dean of WesternMichiganUniversity's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "Then they talk about the poor engineering of the dikes. Excuse me, but they held for many years and held for what they were made for."

Greene sees the importance of engineering framed in the events of Hurricane Katrina: Engineers will have the most significant roles in rebuilding efforts, but it will be the emergency responders who are featured on CNN.

"You don't hear any mention of how they got the refineries (near New Orleans) going again," he said. "That's a real success story, but no one is out there yelling, 'They're pumping again!'"

Another challenge to the engineering field is getting schoolchildren to understand what it's all about.

"My observation is that engineers were the children of engineers or some hands-on profession like farming, mechanical or the blue collar arts," Plotkowski said. "They have a sense for what it's about: the creativity, which is overlooked, and the math and science."

A child raised by a doctor or lawyer, however, may not learn an appreciation for engineering.

Furthermore, there are few women engineers — women represent 46 percent of the labor force but 9 percent of engineers. At GVSU, which is 60 percent female, the engineering school is barely 20 percent female.

"Talk to a high school boy that likes science and math — he wants to become an engineer," Plotkowski said. "A girl hears math teacher or nurse."

GVSU's Science Technology & Engineering Preview Summer Camp (STEPS) is designed to introduce middle-school girls to science and technology through a one-week summer camp that features designing and building a radio-controlled airplane, and robotics for older participants.

STEPS is replicated from a pilot program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and funded by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. The school first launched the initiative following its president's unsuccessful effort to find a local female engineer to speak to a group of young women.

A similar program developed locally for at-risk high school students is the Grand Rapids Area Pre-College Engineering Program (GRAPCEP) at DavenportUniversity. The program combines classroom training and job shadowing at local companies where students work with researchers and scientists. There is a paid internship during the summer.

"Many people in industry or higher education have suggestions they'd like to give," said GRAPCEP Executive Director Sandra Burmeister. "But suggestions or coming in to speak aren't effective.

"We've set up a situation where they can teach and have a hands-on project to reinforce that. It's right on target for students to meet the need for good problem-solvers."

There are 100 Grand Rapids Public Schools students currently in the program with 20 local companies. Gov. Jennifer Granholm recognized it as a model small school program.    

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