Changing the view of engineering

3 min read

Perceptions of a degree or career in engineering should change, says Leah Jamieson

From China to Africa to Europe to the Americas, the slow drip of attrition is proving to be a dangerous drain on the field of engineering. For example, the number of engineering specialties in Chinese universities has fallen by more than half from 1997 to 2006, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education. In the US, while university enrol-ments overall are at all-time highs, the number of students in engineering programmes has not risen appreciably over the past 25 years.

In the UK, the picture is more blurred. There has been a seven per cent increase in engineering and technology higher education applications in the last five years, according to the Engineering and Technology Board (ETB). Its latest data also shows that less than two-thirds of engineering and technology graduates enter employment of some kind six months after graduation and that nine out of 10 of these take up engineering and related occupations, with three-quarters being employed by an engineering company.

However, one of the UK’s most respected academic engineers, Prof Michael Sterling, argued in The Guardian (9 December 2008) that: ‘The picture in terms of engineering graduates at UK universities is not terribly good.’ He said that 40 per cent of all engineering degrees in the UK are not accredited to professional bodies such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). Graduates from non-accredited courses have to undergo extra training to gain chartered engineer status, therefore only a tiny number of graduates from non-accredited degrees enter the profession. Prof Sterling said that the decline in chartered engineers is further proof. And of the 60 per cent of graduates on accredited engineering courses, only 29 per cent enter the profession and become chartered engineers — therefore the supply of professional engineering graduates will not improve in the short term.

Engineering also remains a largely male-dominated occupation in the UK. Despite more women joining the sector, the rate of increase is low, according to the ETB. The proportion of female registered engineers is in single figures and although new registrants are currently about one in six, this is growing far too slowly.

What is at stake if the number of qualified engineers doesn’t rise? The innovations of tomorrow in healthcare, alternative energy, communications and the environment; if technology has a humanitarian application in any field, you can bet an engineer is behind it.

The expectations young people have of their careers have shifted seismically in favour of fields that stress creativity and humanitarian concerns. The perception of engineering is that it does the opposite — that it is cold and sterile and focuses too heavily on mastering formidable mathematics and not enough on how engineers apply their skills and creativity to solve real-world problems.

Engineering educators have a role to play; for example, by fostering innovation and connecting engineering to the world, as opposed to a sole focus on the more classic nuts-and-bolts, classroom-only, fundamentals-based curriculum. This can be done by centering engineering education around experiences: internships, co-op, international experiences, research, entrepreneurship and service experiences both in local communities and in developing countries. All of these first-hand experiences support the idea that engineers make a world of difference.

A 2008 US National Academy of Engineering study found students responded more favourably to the idea of engineering as a ‘difference-maker’ in the world than as a field with a main attraction of offering a challenging environment for their maths and science skills. If we can continue to broadcast the world-changing applications and practical uses of engineering loud enough, the message will be heard and it will resonate.

Industry plays a key role in the rescue of the engineering profession. The truth is that no matter how hard we try, if students graduate with an engineering degree and then find themselves stifled, apprenticing in the workplace, we will not be able to re-populate the field and maintain optimum levels of innovation. Industry must do its part and provide workplaces and jobs that, from day one, call upon an engineer’s curiosity, unlimited thinking, relentless passion and leadership skills, especially in the service of society, where applicable.

I recognise that this is a departure for industry, which generally tends to deploy hierarchical structures in which entry-level personnel are deployed to perform tasks that are often detailed rather than creative. But that will have to change if we want students to consider engineering as the ultimate career, and thus choose to become engineers at all.

Leah Jamieson is a former IEEE president and is dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue University