Companies nationwide want skilled engineering graduates, while student interest in the profession has grown. These factors are fueling booms at engineering schools,but institutions need help keeping up with demand.
Some public universities are turning to state legislatures for help, even in an era of budget tightening. The pitch: producing more engineers is good economics.
In Kansas, where industry needed more engineers to fill positions, legislation enacted in 2011 aimed to boost graduates from the state’s three public universities by 60%. As a PE article explained, the state provided funding even during a budget shortfall because engineering drives economic growth.
The University Engineering Initiative Act provided $105 million in state funding over 10 years, with a university match. The Kansas Society of Professional Engineers actively lobbied for the money, which helped build new facilities and increased faculty.
Halfway through, the University of Kansas’s engineering program has already exceeded its goal and almost doubled its B.S. graduates, according to dean Michael Branicky, P.E. Those graduates have grown to 499 from 255; the goal was 419 by 2021.
The growth has also driven an increase in quality and diversity. Test scores and grade point averages are up, says Branicky, and percentages of women and underrepresented minorities have increased.
Causes are both internal and external: New facilities have attracted students, and engineering job placement rates also help. Says Branicky: “There’s a lot of excitement among faculty that things are happening.”
Companies are happy as well. “Sometimes they say this is a great start, because they want even more,” the dean says. “We like that because it means they’re seeing the ROI. That’s just a great story with [the legislature].”
At the University of Utah, the boom in engineering graduates has been part of a push to grow well-paying tech jobs in the state. The Engineering Initiative, established by the state legislature in 2001, aimed to triple engineering graduates.
So far, it has allocated $122 million to thestate’s engineering programs to hire and retain faculty, develop new programs, build and renovate facilities, and provide equipment—with an equal university match.
According to Dean of Engineering, Richard Brown, the most significant result of the funding, combined with vigorous outreach, has been a growth in student interest. “We do not have a pipeline problem,” he notes.
Engineering graduates at the University of Utah have increased from 366 in 1999 to 902 in 2016, with “no slowing in sight.” Promises to the legislature tied to additional funding requests have consistently been exceeded. In 2015, state schools said they would graduate another 250 engineering students per year “and we actually graduated 657 more students,” says Brown. “It’s a pretty easy sell to go back.”
And just like at the University of Kansas, the larger numbers have driven an increase in quality and diversity, Brown says.
In addition, the larger engineering workforce has attracted high-tech companies to the state, as planned. That, in turn, creates a need for even more engineers.
Employment at Utah high-tech companies has almost doubled in the last 10 years, Brown says, with the state topping Business Insider’s list of fastest growing tech states in the first half of 2016.
From 2005–15, the compound annual growth rate of Utah GDP was almost twice that of the US. And the Utah gross domestic product has more than doubled since the Engineering Initiative started.
While Brown notes that multiple factors have contributed to these successes, he says Utah “is a great example that investing in growing engineering and computer science education can lead to a healthy high-tech economy.”
In Washington, engineering dean Michael Bragg is focused on some of the same payoffs. The region is already a high-tech powerhouse—with companies such as Boeing, Amazon, and Microsoft—but state universities can’t educate enough students to fill positions.
For reasons the University of Washington dean doesn’t fully understand, the state ranks 49th in the nation in the production of engineers. Bragg says the state has increased investment, which has allowed his university’s engineering enrollment to grow by 40%, but the school needs more help.
Interest in engineering majors at UW Seattle has grown almost 50% over the last five years, and only about a third of interested freshmen can be accommodated currently. The legislature and governor are sympathetic—and Bragg is optimistic about additional support—but there are competing priorities.
“The huge demand that is projected for engineers isn’t sustainable if we can’t supply it,” Bragg wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed. “More state investment could help loosen the bottleneck and provide lifechanging opportunities for Washington’s young people and long-term benefits to our economy.”