How To Meet the Increasing Demand for Engineers
By Jeff Roman, P.E.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the engineering profession needs to grow by 15% to meet increasing demand and to replace retiring baby boomers. A shortfall could jeopardize the health of the American economy. Even with the financial appeal of a $91,000 median annual wage for engineering jobs (more than twice that of all workers!), we still struggle to meet demand.
Where can this growth come from? The wealth of potential talent among women and minorities! Women account for about half of the US workforce, but only 27% of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) workforce. Black and Hispanic workers are also underrepresented, making up 9% and 7% of STEM workers, respectively. Study after study validates the value and benefits of diversity in the workforce, such as changing the way teams digest information to make even better decisions and accelerating innovation, to name a couple. So, diversification should remain a top priority as we deepen the engineering profession.
We recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of Engineers Week. The original purpose of Engineers Week was to celebrate the contributions of engineers to society. In 1990, as our profession realized the need to proactively recruit more engineers and the importance of advancing a diverse workforce, EWeek took on a dual purpose to also focus on outreach efforts. Thanks to DiscoverE and other organizations, tens of thousands of engineers have been role models and provided hands-on activities to millions of students. Yet we need to do more.
So, how can we fill the pipeline to meet the increasing demand for engineers and simultaneously diversify our workforce? Here are some suggestions for successful outreach efforts that my firm has put in place.
Start an Explorers Post
JEFF ROMAN, P.E., WORKS ON INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION.
The Exploring program was created by the Boy Scouts of America in 1998 to provide career exploration opportunities for anyone between the ages of 10 and 20. Almost 3 million students nationwide have participated in Exploring since its inception. Through the program, businesses and organizations provide real-life, hands-on experience in a variety of fields, such as aviation, emergency response, healthcare, architecture, engineering, business, and art. Explorers “Clubs” are for middle school students, while Explorers “Posts” are for high school students and young adults.
Now in our sixth year, Little’s award-winning Engineering Explorers Post teaches high school students about civil, geotechnical, structural, mechanical, electrical, and construction engineering, as well as sustainability. We focus on one topic during each class, spending 20–30 minutes talking about the topic and an hour on fun hands-on activities, which seems to be a winning formula.
The hardest year is the first one. Recruiting your team, figuring out your activities, getting into a cadence. Once you get through that first year, though, the Post runs like a well-oiled machine. And witnessing the enthusiasm in students as they learn and engage is well worth the effort! So, reach out to your local BSA Council and find out how you can start a Club, a Post, or both.
Connect Teachers to Engineering Professionals
The North Carolina Business Committee for Education has created a free “marketplace” called the Navigator, where classroom teachers can “shop” for career resources like guest speakers, job shadowing and apprenticeships, worksite tours, career fair participants, and many others. Businesses post available resources that teachers can filter by county, audience age, delivery mechanism, career cluster, and resource type to pinpoint what best suits their need. It’s the first of its kind in the US, and other states are reaching out to NCBCE for advice on how they can create a similar tool.
If you’re in North Carolina, I encourage you to register with the Navigator and post resources, especially in STEM fields. If you’re not, see if your state has created a similar resource, or maybe there is a STEM group in your area dedicated to connecting teachers with professionals. Seventy-four percent of teachers say their students lack opportunities to talk to engineers, and many times teachers don’t know how to find engineers (nor do they have time to figure it out, which, as the husband of a teacher, I can confirm first-hand!), so let’s make it easy for them.
A great place to start is local chapters of state engineering societies. Ask engineers to add their name to a volunteer list. Provide training on how to be an effective guest speaker and facilitate fun hands-on activities. Reach out to local school districts and find that point of contact who can coordinate with teachers who want engineers to visit with their students.
Other Ideas to Consider
Over the years, we’ve made connections to schools, teachers, career technical education coordinators, and counselors—sometimes through a coworker with a student at the school, sometimes at a school we designed, and sometimes it’s just plain luck. Once you’ve established the relationship, there are always students to get excited about engineering. We’ve hosted class field trips, where students see engineers in action at our offices. We’ve hosted students for individual job shadow experiences. We’ve visited classrooms and have been guest judges for engineering class project presentations. We’ve spoken to student organizations and taken part in career fairs. We’ve even “taken over” a local science museum—twice! There are all sorts of ways to show students the excitement of engineering!
It’s never too early to plant the seed. I’m amazed at how intuitive kindergarteners are when I show them a color rendered site plan or stack books on paper columns. If you want to focus on girls, concentrate on middle schoolers because that seems to be the age where we lose their interest in STEM. Let them hear from female engineers. If you want to focus on racial diversity, seek out schools with a higher percentage of people of color and send engineers who look like them.
My Final Plea
To fill the pipeline with future engineers, we as engineers have to make outreach efforts a priority and take every opportunity to get kids excited about engineering. If just one student is inspired to pursue an engineering degree because of one outreach event, that’s one more who may not have ever considered our great profession otherwise. And when that student reaches out one day from their college email address to thank you, or to ask about a summer internship or a full time opening, and tells you they became an engineer because of you, there aren’t many feelings in life that are more rewarding. I can attest from first-hand experience. Go be that inspiration for someone.
NSPE member Jeff Roman, P.E., is an engineering practice leader at the architecture and design firm Little. He is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is LEED AP certified.