Experts Discuss How to Grow and Keep US Engineering Workforce

June 2014

Experts Discuss How to Grow and Keep US Engineering Workforce

Train StationProfessional engineering societies were challenged to take a second look at how to attract and keep engineers in the US workforce during the 2014 Engineering Public Policy Symposium in April.

Held in Washington, DC, as part of the National Academy of Engineering’s annual Convocation of the Professional Engineering Societies, this year’s symposium included a session titled “Engineering Workforce and the US Economic Renaissance—Opportunities and Barriers.” During the session the validity of engineering shortages, disinterest of American youth in STEM, and long-held assumptions about what’s keeping women out of engineering were all challenged.

Richard Freeman, Harvard University economics professor and director of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Science and Engineering Workforce Project, was the session’s first speaker. He discussed the US engineering workforce, the global economy, and their relationship with one another.

“We can never really have a shortage of engineers as long as we allow immigrants to come in and work,” he told those in attendance. “We are the place where the best and brightest people want to come.”

Freeman pointed to statistics that have for years shown a large percentage of graduate engineering degrees being given to foreign-born students and an equally large percentage of those foreign-born students remaining in the US to work. Right or not, however, his statement may have been a small comfort to those who feel American-born students are not demonstrating the same interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but Freeman challenged that idea as well, calling it a myth.

“There’s no evidence American youth aren’t interested in [STEM],” he said, though he did concede that some disciplines like engineering lose students to the financial and other disciplines. The real problem for engineering, he argued, was a lack of opportunity. “We produce engineers at a smaller number of places and very top academic places, but obviously, there’s a supply of people who may want to be engineers who did not get into one of these engineering places.”

Among the policy changes Freeman suggested to improve the US engineering workforce and its place in the global economy was making higher education in engineering more available.

Nadya Fouad, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor of educational psychology, and Romila Singh, UWM business professor, presented the findings of their National Science Foundation-funded study, Stemming the Tide, into why women leave engineering, as well as some preliminary findings for their current NSF-funded study into why men leave engineering.

NSF statistics show women comprise more than 20% of engineering school graduates, but only 11% of practicing engineers are women. When it was published in 2012, Stemming the Tide showed this discrepancy was not only the result of women leaving to start families, as some had suggested, but the result of a number of factors. Preliminary findings of the new research show those same factors also drive men from the profession.

For women, a poor work culture or chilly work environment may manifest as sexism but both can affect men as well. Regardless of gender or how they manifest, Fouad and Singh’s research suggests they are detrimental to keeping people in the profession.

Another factor contributing to women and men leaving the profession is ambiguity about one’s position and duties. Factors helping to keep women and men in engineering include continuing education or training, opportunity for advancement, and recognition of accomplishments.

Although, according to the findings, not everything is the same for women and men—women report more advancement opportunities at the organizational level but less supervisory and coworker support at the position level compared to men—both genders care about the same things in the workplace and that makes addressing their concerns simpler.

“There are two relatively easy areas to focus on,” Singh says. “One is to create systems and policies that promote training and development—the scaffolding that helps build the current pool and retains them, and engages them, and keeps them satisfied with the organization. At the same time, it’s not just the scaffolding we need to focus on … but it’s also the culture and the climate—the soft fuzzy stuff, the body on the scaffolding.”

The engineering workforce session was moderated by Executive Director of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Thomas Loughlin.