Are engineering programs overproducing graduates?
Mark Atwater posted on December 07, 2013 | 5075 views

Want a good job? Are you good with math? Become an engineer. This logical progression has been put into practice for decades without much trouble. The current push for STEM, however, may be short-circuiting that path.

Boom or Bubble

At the core of this question is a difference of perspective. Engineering programs at colleges across the country are expanding programs, building new facilities and hiring new faculty in a wager that demand for engineers will grow.

Economists, on the other hand, are more skeptical about the demand for engineers both currently and in the near future. As described in Prism Magazine, they believe, “the purported demand is not supported by wage data, varies markedly among disciplines and regions, and is vulnerable to economic cycles and marketplace trends.”

Despite Presidential assurance that there is a “huge demand for engineers,” the debate continues. A prominent skeptic of that demand, Hal Salzman of Rutgers University, explains, “about 60 to 70 percent of engineering graduates get an engineering job.” According to Salzman, this is because the demand for larger numbers of engineers exists only in in a few relatively small specialties.

The  Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2010 and 2020 a total of 2.4 million job openings will be created in science and engineering through new job creation and natural attrition. This is only 4.4 percent of the nationwide total of 54.8 million.

Also indicating stagnation of demand for engineers is a sluggish wage growth. In high demand fields, wages will reflect the need. Engineering disciplines have seen a lower increase of wages than other STEM occupations as well as many non-STEM occupations.

The occupational growth of engineering fields is historically linked to the development of new technology. According to Canadian economists Paul Beaudry of the University of British Columbia and David Green and Benjamin Sand of York University, “Skill-based technological change can cause a boom and bust in the demand.”

The demand for engineers is high in the development stages, but once the new technology is widely disseminated and well established, skilled workers are no longer needed in large numbers.

Other complicating factors include engineering graduates which are not employed in fields designated as engineering, even if their role is closely linked. This includes managers in a wide range of companies and organizations.

Also affecting employment opportunity is the variation of employment in different sectors of engineering. Fields such as IT are rapidly changing technology and workers, but long-range projects such as aerospace tend to hold on to employees longer since the technology takes longer to develop and is in service longer as well.

As a nation, we are dependent on innovation to drive competitiveness. Most engineers, however, are not involved in the development of new technologies, and adding more engineers will not necessarily increase innovative advancement.

“Having a good supply of engineers, that’s not what drives innovation,” Salzman says. “Are firms investing in R&D? Are they hiring? Creating engineers without jobs is not what leads to innovation.” Alternatively, “if you want innovation, put money into innovation.”


Photo courtesy of Prism Magazine

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