Demand surges for students who can design cool products and keep the U.S. ahead
BY ROBERT (BUZZ) KROSS April 19, 2005 As high school seniors begin selecting their college courses, they must consider what fields hold the most promise of a solid, successful career. Biotechnology? Political science? Economics?
The surprising answer is that electrical engineering and mechanical engineering are two of the three most sought-after bachelor's degrees, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' 2005 Job Outlook survey.
Demand for engineering graduates will grow as much as 9 percent per year through the end of the decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. College hiring is also expected to be on the rise this year, 13.1 percent over 2004, according to the study.
Mechanical and electrical engineering graduates will find employers with open arms -- and generous offers -- especially in the Midwest, home of some 40 percent of the employers in the survey.
But these rosy job prospects mask an enormous problem for American competitiveness. The plain fact is that the demand for mechanical and electrical engineers to design the next hybrid automobile engine, high-efficiency electrical turbine or complex machine tool far outstrips the expected supply. To make matters worse, the nation's current engineering workforce is rapidly getting older, with the average age of engineers in many companies now in the late 40s.
Educational and engineering organizations, such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, have warned that the number of students selecting engineering as a college major has fallen far behind the need. Especially troubling is the lack of female and minority engineering students at a time when those groups make up the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population.
The loss of engineering talent in the United States is immense, and far greater than simple jobs. Innovation is the last competitive advantage U.S. manufacturers enjoy against hungry global competitors. U.S. manufacturers simply can't compete with producers in China or Eastern Europe on price; to succeed, they must compete on innovation -- new products, superior designs, new manufacturing techniques. If we don't fuel that innovation with a steady crop of young U.S. engineers, it will spell the ultimate demise of manufacturing in this nation.
The decline in the quality of our math and science education is well-documented and a very real issue. As early as middle school, American students are behind their top international peers in these subjects, and by the time they are ready for college they need remedial classes just to be able to begin studying engineering. But that's just part of the problem.
The simple fact is that engineering has lost something important for young people.
In the era of the Space Race in the 1950s and 1960s, engineering was the height of cool. That's no longer true today, even though everything from today's hottest consumer electronics to the technology behind tsunami relief depends on engineering. As a society, we have simply failed to show just how much engineering makes a difference in lives of kids.
When a high-school kid dials up the volume on her iPod, does she realize the role of mechanical engineering in its stylish design? Or in the tiny disk drive that makes it work?
When a college freshman begs his dad for a Mini-Cooper, does he fathom the engineering that gives that car its cool personality?
If they don't understand that, chances are they don't understand what engineering does for humanity, how mechanical and electrical engineering are vital to providing clean water, food, health care and communications to victims of the Asian tsunami.
We owe it to our kids -- and to our future -- to show them how cool engineering can be. Only then will we be able to create the innovation that has always made America great.