We Need More American-trained Engineers to Design America’s Future

Just before Labor Day, a coalition of 45 companies companies, including Facebook, Intel, Bayer, McKesson, JP Morgan and other big names from the private sector, announced a program to double the number of internships they offer engineering students in 2012.

ACEC California applauds the move, which has a goal of creating 6,500 internships and was announced by the White House as part of the Obama Administration’s goal of increasing the number of engineering students who graduate from U.S. colleges and universities by 10,000 each year. That, in turn, is tied to the Administration’s plans for creating jobs, part of which is to promote engineering disciplines, including infrastructure development which is at the core of what our members – chiefly consulting engineers and land surveyors – are involved in.

It’s a great start, but it’s hardly enough.

Just look at the situation here in California: it has been estimated that each year our higher education system produces 10,000 – or about one sixth — of the engineers in the U.S. Seventy percent of those graduates hold BS degrees while 20 percent hold a Master’s and the remainder are PhD candidates. Of the 1,000 or so PhD candidates, about 70 percent are foreigners, many of whom return home upon completion of their degree requirement.

Meanwhile, India produces 600,000 engineers per year and China, a staggering one million engineers through its education system. Here in California, we need to at least double the number of engineers we produce here each year to 20,000 just to keep pace and that goes for the U.S. as a whole also.

The U.S. is not alone in being slow to recognize the importance of a strong engineering sector. Earlier this summer, Sir John Parker, head of Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering, cautioned that the U.K. needs to double its output of qualified engineers if the Cameron government’s goal of “rebalancing the economy” by boosting manufacturing output and jobs was to become reality. Here in the U.S., our manufacturing sector has long been on the wane and part of the reason is a lack of qualified engineers. As Sir John correctly pointed out in his interview with the Financial Times: “If you look at what lies behind the products and services of many companies, from pharmaceuticals to railways, you will find that their creative focus is invariably centred on the art and science of engineering.”

In our industry, we look to engineers to solve huge problems from how to create a safe bridge span, to how high to build a dam and where to establish a wastewater treatment plant. Some solutions are routine, some extraordinary. We honor many projects each year through our Engineering Excellence Awards. Last year’s national winner was a project to design a facility for Southern California onion producer Gills Onions allowing the company to turn onion byproducts into energy to help power a local onion processing plant. Member firm HDR provided that solution.

We also do our bit to promote the sector to students at high schools and colleges throughout the state. Our website has links to resources for students and ACEC California, its local chapters and member firms regularly take outreach to high schools up and down the state. And, in addition to internships and scholarships provided by our national organization, local chapters and member firms, our state Scholarship Foundation provides annual scholarships to engineering students in California.

But we can, and will do more. The Business Council, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, American Chemistry Council and the White House have led the way in shining a light on this issue and we hope to intensify the attention on this critical issue.

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