With the 2007-2008 school year in full swing, it seemed an appropriate time to address a recurrent challenge. The challenge – in our industry and all industries – is a shortage of engineering graduates.

There seems to be some disagreement on whether this is the symptom or the problem, but in general most agree that we are currently experiencing an engineering shortfall. Data shows that enrollments – while increasing early this decade – have begun to fall off and are predicted to continue this trend. The trend for women in the engineering field is more bleak, as enrollment peaked in the mid-1990s and has been in decline since. These trends are even worse when considered on a per-capita basis.

The reasons for the various trends are numerous, and it makes sense to review some of these because it may help us in our corrective actions. The goal is not to place blame but to look for ways in which we can be part of the solution.

With an unemployment rate half that of the general market, engineers are again commanding higher salaries. The director of the career center at Mississippi State (MSU) indicated that this is the best market for engineers in his 38-year career. Consequently, starting salaries are up by more than 5% in civil and chemical engineering with somewhat smaller increases in other engineering disciplines. Median starting salaries for “engineering” graduates are over $50,000 and appear to be moving above the peak experienced in the early part of this decade. The salary stagnation of the past few years correlates directly with the decrease in enrollments.

Some reasons for the increased need for engineers are the aging U.S. infrastructure – think bridges – and environmental needs. Specific events, such as hurricane Katrina, have had some effect as well. Another factor that should continue to impact the market is the retirement of a large group of engineers in the “baby-boom” generation. These retirements are already beginning and should continue throughout the next decade and beyond.

It’s impossible to reflect on this topic without considering several other issues that complicate a seemingly simple discussion. The same retirees that may create opportunity in the engineering job market may become independent consultants and affect the market in unknowable ways. Globalization of virtually everything has and will affect the engineering job market as well.

With these uncertainties, what does it mean for college students choosing a career in engineering? Those in the know, such as the career-center director from MSU, say that the future of engineering is excellent. The director of engineering career services at Cornell agrees, saying that engineers face a strong and active job market that values analytical and problem-solving skills acquired from a technical curriculum. As the world progresses to a more technology-based way of life, engineering is the way things are going.

Engineers today need to be able to deal with the unexpected. They need to wear several hats, and they need to be able to adapt to the dynamic world in which we find ourselves today. A recent survey of over 1,200 engineers indicates that today’s engineers need the following skills to succeed in their profession: project management, computer, communication/presentation, team-building, language, marketing/sales and finance/accounting. The first three on this list were given by almost 90% of the survey respondents. These engineers indicated 80% of the time that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their engineering career.

Outsourcing is the growing trend in the engineering field. The survey indicated that 78% of companies are farming out aspects of their design work, and for these companies an average of 9% of this work is outsourced. If this increases in the coming years, it might further complicate the predictability of engineering job-market growth. While this might be a negative, it may provide opportunities for those who are prepared. It may also provide part-time opportunities for those approaching retirement age.

What does it all mean? The engineering field continues to be one ripe with opportunity for those looking for a satisfying career. Near-future job growth is virtually assured, and long-term growth looks good as well. Today’s engineers need to be able to adapt to the dynamic nature of the field, and more than ever they need to be good communicators and good leaders. With team efforts becoming more and more important, engineers with good social skills will also continue to be in demand. IH