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Engineers Required; Others Need Not Apply

In 1990 it was said that science and technology would advance more in that next decade than it had in all recorded history! That was truly amazing when considering how far we'd come since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs or even since the days of the wild west! Will that rate of progress continue? If not, it may be due to a lack of engineers and scientists.

We are living in a truly revolutionary age---in basically one generation we have entered several new eras....the space age, the atomic age, the computer age, and now the information age. Understanding any one of these requires more INFORMATION than any one of us can possibly digest. Many of the problems faced by our country, and the world, require engineering solutions. Developing our engineers has been important in our past successes as a nation and will continue to be important to the future competitiveness of our country. The U.S. once had 50 percent of the world market’s share of manufactured goods; that is now about 12 percent.

Indeed there are good arguments on both sides of the issue as to whether a "shortage of engineers" exists now or is likely to exist in the near future. On the one hand, we’ve heard for years, really decades, about a coming "shortage" of engineers. In the mid-1980s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) predicted "looming shortfalls" of scientists and engineers in the following two decades. And it was forecast in 1990 that by the year 2000 the demand for engineers would outstrip the supply by 150,000 professional engineering positions.

According to the Infinity Project, only two of every 100 U. S. high school graduates go on to earn engineering degrees; Europe is said to produce nearly three times as many engineering graduates as the United States; and Asia produces almost five times as many.

On the other hand, a recent report titled Framing the Engineering Outsourcing Debate: Placing the United States on a Level Playing Field with China and India, prepared by researchers Gary Gereffi and Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University determined that the U.S. is producing a significant and competitive number of engineers.

Their goal was to clear up complications created by inconsistent reporting of problematic engineering graduation data so as to fairly compare just what type of "degree" constitutes an education for those considered to be "engineers" produced by accredited colleges in the United States. Reclassifying the number of degrees on the basis of an "engineer" being defined as having at least a 4-year bachelors degree offers what the researchers view as a more accurate and balanced comparison of the annual production of engineering, computer science, and information technology degrees awarded.

The result of the study? While the popular press reported annual engineer production in 2004 to be roughly 70,000 in the U.S., 350,000 in India, and 600,000 in China, the adjusted data by the Duke researchers showed the numbers of engineers to be quite different. Their report concludes that, on an "apples to apples" basis, the annual production of engineers having bachelors degrees is 137,000 in the U.S., 112,000 in India, and 351,000 in China. Further, while there may be more bachelor degrees produced annually in some countries, it must be recognized that India has three times the population of the U.S. and China four times. So, if one compares the ratio of bachelor degrees awarded per one million citizens, a higher percentage of the population are new engineer-types in the United States than in the other countries. In the U.S., there were 468 bachelor level degrees annually per million citizens, while in India the ratio was just 104 and in China 271.

Looking back, the supply/demand curves for engineering talent which were actually experienced in the 1980's and 1990's weren't exactly as the aforementioned NSF crystal ball had forecasted. But where shortages were experienced, they were not uniformly distributed over all engineering disciplines. So today, irrespective of which side you may take in the "overall engineer shortage" debate, private-sector employers are now recognizing that a "shortage" in the CIVIL engineering field may no longer be a future-tense prophecy, but an issue affecting their ability to perform and to grow.

Due to several phenomenon, the challenges will increase for professional services firms and for other institutions whose business is to create civil engineering solutions.

First, there is the demand for engineering design for the new development/infrastructure required to support still-growing populations (both here and worldwide). Secondly, this demand will be compounded by the need for re-design for re-building that must simultaneously occur due to the unceasing, deteriorating affects of time on the infrastructure originally built decades or even centuries ago in our already developed inner cities. Third, while new technology may promote increased productivity, today’s civil engineers must regroup and take the time and effort to “keep up” throughout their careers with changes in their technologies accelerating at rapid rates formerly unknown to their predecessor practitioners. Lastly, here in the U.S., we must factor-in the soon-coming retirements of unprecedented numbers of experienced Baby-Boomer engineers.

No doubt, America needs a substantial number of new generation engineers with diversified skills to help shape the 21st century! While we are just barely out of the starting blocks on this race of the century, have we embarked at too slow a pace on providing the number of civil engineers required for the task? What will historians say about whether the United States took any more seriously the need to educate and produce more civil engineers; not in the decades following the prediction of a coming shortage, but during the current decade when the shortage is already a reality? Let’s hope it is not recorded that we dropped the baton during our watch.

- John P. Wier, P.E., R.P.L.S., Historical Chair, Fort Worth Branch ASCE, January 2007

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