Science and engineeering (S&E) brain drain is in full swing in businesses across the country. Turnover is high, the availability of young talent is declining and experienced talent is retiring early...

A science and engineering (S&E) brain drain is in full swing in businesses across the country. Turnover is high, the availability of young talent is declining and experienced talent is retiring early, says The Garrity Group Inc., a marketing/media organization located in St. Paul, Minn., which discovered in doing research for Minneapolis-based Intota (an engineering-expert network service) that:

  • The half life of today's engineering degree is about 18 months (per Hewlitt Packard).
  • Nearly 80% of today's science and technical students plan to leave their first employer within three years (per National Society of Professional Engineers).

To add to these woes, the number of students enrolling in undergraduate engineering decreased by 16%, from a high of 441,200 students in 1983, to 356,000 in 1996, according to Science and Engineering Indicators - 2000, published by National Science Foundation (NSF). The trend turned around a little in 1997 and 1998, showing a 1.5% increase in engineering enrollment. For graduate enrollment, the trend is different. Enrollment increased from 1979 to 1993, then declined for five straight years before increasing slightly in 1999. NSF says as of April 1997, approximately 3.4 million persons were employed in an S&E occupation, with engineers representing 41% (1.37 million) of the S&E positions.

Rapid increases in new entries to the S&E labor force for many decades led to a relatively young S&E labor force with only a small percentage near traditional retirement ages, says NSF. The picture is rapidly changing as a large number of persons who earned S&E degrees in the late 1960s and early 1970s are moving into what is likely to be the latter part of their careers. With current retirement patterns, the total number of retirements among S&E degreed workers will dramatically increase over the next 10-15 years.

NSF projects an increase in the number of jobs in engineering over a 10-year span from 998 to 2008 of nearly 300,000. If we don't increase engineering enrollment, can't keep graduate engineers in the S&E field for very long, and can't stem the tide of "early" retires, will there be enough engineers to fill this need?

NSF says that the number of trained scientists and engineers in the labor force will continue to increase for some time barring very large reductions in degree production or similarly large increases in retirement rates. The number of persons who are now receiving S&E degrees exceeds the number of S&E degreed workers who are near traditional retirement ages. Also, barring large increases in degree production, the average age of S&E degreed workers will rise.

NSF points out that retirement behavior differs from one person to another. Some retire from a job while continuing to work full- or part-time- sometimes for the same employer, while others leave the labor force without a retired designation from some formal pension plan. Findings in S&E Indicators - 2000 are that 50% of S&E bachelor's and master's degree holders were not working full-time by age 63, the 50% mark is not reached until three years later for S&E Ph.D. holders. Longevity also differs by degree level based on other measures. One half of S&E bachelor's degree holders have left the labor force entirely by age 64, by age 65 for master's degree holders, and not until age 68 for Ph.D. holders. Formal retirement also occurs at somewhat higher ages for Ph.D. holders-more than 50% of S&E bachelor's and master's degree holders have retired from some job by age 63, compared with age 65 for S&E Ph.D. holders.

These findings don't seem to support the statement above that experienced talent is retiring early. However, I've seen increasing instances of engineers leaving early due, in my opinion, to burnout-a case of "brain strain" accompanied by an energy shortage and feelings of exhaustion. Running businesses lean and mean has become common in corporate America. Increasing workloads and insisting on doing more with less can lead to burnout, a condition that comes after an extended period of on-the-job frustration due to relentless stress to which there is no end in sight. Comments such as "I had enough and I'm getting out"; It's crazy, I can't think"; and "I'd like to do it, but my plate is full," are being heard more often.

There are a number of ongoing approaches to solve the S&E issues on the front end through programs to create an awareness in K-12 students of what science and technology are and the career opportunities in the field. But replacing expert knowledge is expensive, and burnout should not be the reason for seasoned engineers to leave the profession before their time.