Has Engineering Education Failed?

August 19, 2008

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Here we look at the concerns regarding the number and quality of engineering students heading into the workforce, from the perspective of the student, the professor and even the IMT reader.

A lot has been said in recent years about the suspected lack of engineering graduates nationally. Long-term data on the United States workforce show a trend toward increasing numbers of educated workers in science- and engineering-related occupations. During a meeting last November on the country's science and engineering workforce, Michael Teitelbaum, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, told members of the U.S. House that there are "substantially more scientists and engineers graduating from U.S. universities" than there are jobs.

Yet a report released earlier this year says the number of students earning bachelor's degrees in engineering has declined by almost 3 percent in the U.S. over the past two decades. "While that statistic may not seem significant by itself, the decline comes at a time when the number of students receiving bachelors degrees overall in the U.S. has increased by more than 50 percent," says Greg Schuckman, director of Federal Relations and Research Advancement at the University of Central Florida and author of the study.

At the same time, a number of these degrees are awarded to foreign students, many of whom will not stay in the U.S. due to restrictive immigration laws. Other research suggests that China and India are producing many more engineers than the U.S., though much of that comes down to how a country defines "engineer."

While it's difficult to determine the makeup of young people pursuing a future in engineering today, the education versus payoff seems to be increasingly off-putting to the younger generation of engineering students.

In The Princeton Review's latest annual survey, five engineering schools made it onto the list of "Least Happy Students." On the list "Professors Get the Worst Marks," engineering schools owned the four worst spots, with Illinois Institute of Technology, Georgia Tech and Rensselaer Polytechnic also landing at the bottom 10. In a category titled "Students Study the Most," engineering schools grabbed four of the top five spots. No engineering schools appeared on the list "Students Study the Least."

Many of our readers would agree that engineering curricula are hard, because of the intensity and number of study hours required, with student grades often on the low side of the bell-shaped curve. Students with low grades typically are unhappy and often tend to blame their professors.

And all of this comes at a great cost — literally.

According to the College Board, the average tuition in 2007 for a four-year state school was $6,185, and for a four-year private school was $23,712. Top-end engineering colleges have rates that are even higher. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a 2007 tuition rate of $34,750, and California Institute of Technology had a 2007 tuition rate of $31,437. These costs are expected to continue to rise year after year, and the thought of paying for four years of school at these rates can be daunting.

Surely, though, an engineering education is an investment. But is the investment worthwhile? Again, mixed results.

"Why take on a backbreaking load of student loan debt, bust your hump in a challenging course of study, then have to compete with people who are happy to be making $5.00 per hour?" an IMT reader asked in 2006.

"We find ourselves importing talent and exporting jobs, not just because it is less expensive to have the work performed by lower-wage skilled workers in developing countries but also because we do not produce enough native-born, well-qualified scientists and engineers in our nation's colleges and universities," John Brooks Slaughter, Ph.D., P.E., president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc., noted last year. (Source: American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES))

However, despite deep concerns about job security and the offshore outsourcing of engineering work to lower-cost markets — mainly in Europe and South Asia — large numbers of university students around the world are enrolled in engineering and scientific disciplines. And many of them are dreaming about potentially vast rewards if their efforts pay off professionally.

Although some surveys and reports have reported a hiring pinch so far this year, the hiring picture for some recent college graduates isn't all that bad — particularly for those with engineering degrees.

This year, engineering jobs have been the most difficult positions for employers to fill in the U.S., according to a survey released by Manpower Inc. Engineers are followed by machinists/machine operators, skilled trades and technicians, the recruitment firm says. CareerBuilder.com also claims that engineering technicians and machine operators both are among America's 10 most wanted workers right now.

For this year's graduates, engineering "may well be [among] the brightest spots," Workforce Management said last month. For engineering, "the job market is excellent," Ralph Mobley, director of career services at Georgia Tech, told Workforce Management, which went on to report:

At commencement ceremonies in May, Mobley says, nearly 72 percent of Georgia Tech's engineering grads had job offers... . He says 2001 was the Atlanta university's high point, "with 80 percent of engineering and computing grads having offers. So we're approaching that level. We pretty well reflect the national job market in engineering."

Yet another dire concern is increasingly being voiced: Are the current crop of young engineers graduating to the labor force even qualified?

"One of the great failures in engineering education has been the inability of graduating students to integrate all they have learned — science, mathematics, engineering fundamentals — in the solution of real-world engineering problems," Kevin Craig, Ph.D., a professor of mechanical engineering, wrote in a Design News editorial titled Dumbing Down the Engineer last November.

At least one IMT reader has taken issue with "the college professors that are teaching very little practical application engineering — but plenty of theory to their students. Which really does nothing to prepare the graduates for applying their skills to solving most of the problems encountered in the real world of Engineering and Design."

"I think we can all agree that true engineering is not learned in the classroom, but by experience and the absorption of knowledge from the people around us," another IMT reader wrote.

Yet this reader, Beth, has "witnessed excellent engineers being let go because they 'make too much money,' and replaced with someone that does not have a clue how to take over that position. No fault to the young engineer. . . [A]fter all, management is expecting them to run with the same projects and ideas as someone who has gained their knowledge with many years of experience."

What happens to this flock of young engineers entering the workforce without the proper guidance of a seasoned engineer to teach them the proper way to apply their skills — because "corporate America has already turned their wise, grey-haired engineers loose" through forced retirement? It's a question many of our readers are asking and a concern many industrial professionals have, as an estimated half-million new engineers may be needed over the next decade to replace those who retire.

"Is there a crisis in engineering? Yes. Is engineering being dumbed down in universities and in industry? Yes. It's a crisis that must be addressed," Professor Craig says.

Let us know the future you see for engineering education as well as workers young and old in this profession.

Earlier:

There May be a Problem, but is There Really a War?

Engineering, Science and Tech for the Pros

Redefining Engineering for the Year 2020

Drowning By Numbers: Engineering in China, India, U.S.

Are We Lacking Engineers? Or Are Engineers Lacking? (Does It Matter?)

Newsflash: There is NO Engineering Shortage

Resources

Where Will We Find the Next Generation of Engineers? American Association of Engineering Societies, Feb. 17, 2008

Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 National Science Board, January 2008

The Best 368 Colleges - 2009 Edition The Princeton Review, July 28, 2008

Trends in College Pricing 2007 The College Board

This Year's Graduates Face Tough Job Market by Bridget Mintz Testa Workforce Management, July 2008

Confronting the Talent Crunch: 2008 Manpower, 2008

America's 10 Most Wanted Workers by Kate Lorenz CareerBuilder.com, Feb. 22, 2008 (last updated)

Dumbing Down the Engineer by Kevin Craig Design News, Nov. 5, 2007

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