Originally Published January 2000
Don't Sweat the Shortage
My fellow Americans of these fat and flush times, you've been warned: We may soon have a shortage on our hands that imperils the nation's prosperity and preeminence.
"Simply stated, America is not producing enough new engineers to ensure that our technological future will be as bright as our past," declares Travis Engen, chairman and chief executive of ITT Industries Inc., in a recent column in USA Today. Since 1986, Engen notes, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States has increased by around 20%, but the number of students getting undergraduate engineering degrees has decreased by about the same amount. Forty states have seen a drop in engineering degrees awarded, including engineering hotbeds such as Massachusetts (minus 36%) and New York (minus 30%).
What can be done to boost engineering enrollment? Engen and others have made a number of proposals, many of which are based on two beliefs: (1) young people know little about engineering and (2) if they knew more, they'd be much more likely to choose it as a career.
Now, No. 1 is undoubtedly true, but I'm dubious about No. 2. Ignorant as they may be of the subject, I think most young people possess just enough accurate information about engineering to discount it as a career. They know it's hard, and they know it's not a road to fame or fortune.
As college courses go, engineering classes are as tough as they comemath-laden, abstract, and taught by engineers, a group (how to put this delicately?) not known as great communicators. In my six years of engineering school (four undergraduate, two graduate), I knew exactly zero people who enjoyed their engineering courses and few who found them more than occasionally interesting. For virtually all of us, the courses were simply an ordeal we had to go through to get a degree and a good job after graduation.
But what rewards will this "good job" bring? Recognition? Wealth? Not likely. A low-visibility lot, engineers don't get the credit they deserve for their accomplishments. (Heck, there's no Nobel Prize for engineering achievement, even though Alfred Nobel himself was an engineer.) And while engineers are well paid, the material rewards offered by the profession generally don't measure up to those reaped by people in law, medicine, and business.
Tough, unappealing class work, professional obscurity, less-than-lavish compensationthis, I believe, is the trio of turnoffs that drive young people away from engineering. Assuming I'm right, what can well-meaning people do to improve the situation? Not much. Engineering ain't basket weaving; it can't be made easy to learn. We can't pass a law mandating that the Nobel committee, Hollywood, the media, and the public pay more attention to engineers and their achievements. And compensation levels are determined by the marketplace.
But while there may be little anyone can do to head off an engineer shortage, my guess is that the problem, if it materializes, will be self-correcting. As a scarce commodity, engineers would see their salaries rise. And non-engineers, their quality of life affected by the shortage, would be forced to notice and appreciate the techies in their midst. In this new environment, with engineers' salaries and stature on the rise, more young people will be drawn into the profession.
So don't sweat an engineer shortage. And if you're an engineer, enjoy the bump in pay and prestige that a shortage will bring. But don't get used to it.
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