The vitality of the innovation economy in the United States depends on the availability of a highly educated technical workforce. A key component of this workforce consists of engineers, engineering technicians, and engineering technologists. Much has been written about the role of engineers, their academic preparation, and their value to the nation. Our purpose in this report has been to shed light on the relatively underappreciated roles and contributions of engineering technicians and technologists. Very abstractly, if engineers are viewed as being responsible for designing the nation’s technological systems, then engineering technicians and technologists are the ones who help build and keep those systems running. However, the reality is more nuanced than that.
Craftsmen and technicians have always been associated with industrial operations. As we note in Chapter 2, the field of “engineering technology (ET) education” evolved following World War II as engineering education became more theoretical and science focused. Chapter 3 describes the characteristics of a multi-tiered ET education system that produces engineering technicians with one or more certificates of specialization (each typically earned in a year’s time or less); engineering technicians with 2-year associate’s (AS or AAS) degrees; and engineering technologists with 4-year bachelor’s (BS) degrees. In Chapter 4, we share detailed information about how these degree holders are employed in both technical and nontechnical occu-
pations, and we discuss the significant share of those working as engineering technologists who have degrees in fields other than ET.
In this final chapter, the committee lays out its findings and a small number of related recommendations in four key areas:
- the nature of ET education,
- supply and demand,
- educational and employment pathways, and
- data collection and analysis.
As an overarching concern, the committee believes that the national discussion about engineering needs to broaden to encompass the spectrum of degree types and skills discussed in this report. Our ability to attract and retain talented men and women across this continuum is necessary to maintaining the nation’s health, safety, and economic security. We hope this report serves as a useful start to the dialog.
This study has highlighted the challenges associated with describing the field of ET education in ways that are clear and that distinguish it from engineering. This is particularly an issue at the 4-year-degree level. We also have come to realize that ET is in many ways a “stealth” profession, existing under the radar of many prospective students, other postsecondary educators, and employers. At the same time, ET provides important value to employers and rich opportunities for job security and meaningful work for those in the field.
From the perspectives of workforce and education policy in the United States, there appears to be little awareness of ET as a field of study or a category of employment. This can be explained by a combination of factors, including the field’s challenges with branding and marketing itself; curricula and worker skills that overlap in some significant ways with those of engineering; and gaps in research and data collection that make it difficult to determine how differences between the two fields affect employment opportunities and benefit employers. Certainly, the large number of degree titles (nearly 50, by our count) associated with the field (Appendix 3C) does not help in understanding ET’s brand.
Thirty percent of almost 250 respondents to our employer survey had never heard of the field of ET education; this lack of awareness rose to almost 50 percent for smaller employers (Table 4-9). Even among respondents who indicated an awareness of ET, one-third said they did not know the difference between work performed by engineers and work performed by engineering technologists, and one-quarter indicated there was too much variability in work roles to clearly distinguish between the two (Table 4-7). This confusion is mirrored to some degree in the terminology used in international equivalency agreements, such as the Sydney Accord (Table 1-5), whose signatory countries use “engineer,” “technologist,” and variants of these (e.g., “Professional Technologist [Engineering]”) to describe individuals with comparable academic backgrounds.
The committee observes that policy discussions about the US technical workforce often omit mention of ET, focusing instead on the need for those with training in engineering and science. The committee could find little evidence at either the federal or the state level that those responsible for determining education spending or policy include ET in their planning. For example, when the administration’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness announced in 2011 a goal of educating 10,000 more engineers a year (White House, 2011), the baseline figure it used included only those with traditional 4-year engineering degrees. The roughly 18,000 graduates with 4-year ET degrees were left out of the calculation.
Lack of awareness of ET appears to extend into the K-12 education system, where many young people are first exposed to possible career paths. The committee found little evidence of formal outreach or communication to K-12 teachers, students, or students’ parents concerning ET and its connection to postsecondary education and employment. This is true even while engineering as a curricular subject is becoming more relevant in precollege settings through initiatives such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013).
FINDING 1: Data collected in this project and by others show that, as a practical matter, ET remains relatively hidden and misunderstood compared with the better-known domain of engineering.
RECOMMENDATION 1: Within academia, it is critical for leaders of 2-year and 4-year ET programs to engage more meaningfully in discussion with leaders in postsecondary engineering education about the similarities and differences between the two variants of engineering and
how they might complement one another while serving the interests of a diverse student population. This engagement can be accomplished in dialog within and between individual institutions; through work by discipline-based and affinity engineering professional societies; and by leaders within the American Society for Engineering Education, such as the Engineering Technology Council, the Engineering Deans Council, and the Corporate Member Council.
Our side-by-side comparison of recommended coursework at several institutions that have both engineering and ET programs (Table 1-6) suggests underlying differences in the relative emphasis on mathematics and science coursework. In addition, a solid majority of 4-year ET educators in our survey believe that their students are better able than engineering students are to do applied work, but they are less prepared in science and mathematics (Table 4-8). From an accreditation standpoint, the different emphases on theory and application are apparent, however subtly, in the student outcomes criteria promulgated by the Accreditation Board on Engineering and Technology (Table 1-7).
FINDING 2a: A useful distinction between 4-year engineering and 4-year ET programs can be made by pointing to the generally greater curricular emphasis on science and mathematics knowledge in the former and on applied training in the latter.
At the 4-year-degree level, ET’s emphasis on application is seen as an asset by many employers—one-third in our sample (Table 4-7)—compared with traditional engineering’s focus on theory and design. For certain populations, particularly adults already in the workforce and returning military veterans, ET programs can provide opportunity for a range of well-paying jobs requiring technical skills. Compared with some other academic areas, ET education may provide more flexibility (combining work and study) and allows students to enter the technical workforce at higher, solidly middle-income wages.
FINDING 2b: ET education is an important and underappreciated component of the US education system. The field’s historical focus on application has advantages—for certain students and for some types of work—compared with traditional, more theory- and design-focused engineering education.
RECOMMENDATION 2: The ET education community should consider ways to make the field’s value proposition more evident to K-12 teachers, students, and students’ parents, as well as to employers. Such an effort might include new messaging developed in collaboration with a qualified public relations firm and based on data from market research on student and employer knowledge and perceptions of ET. The research might test the appeal and believability of rebranding ET as “applied engineering” or other appropriate names identified by the market research. Attention also should be paid to ways to reduce confusion associated with the term “engineering technology” and to simplifying degree nomenclature. To encourage collaboration and avoid duplication, plans for any major new outreach should be communicated with appropriate leadership within the engineering education community, such as the Engineering Deans Council and Engineering Technology Council of the American Society for Engineering Education.
Examining supply and demand issues in ET is complicated both by the definitional confusion surrounding the field and by certain gaps in data collection by the federal government (see “Data Collection and Analysis,” below), among other factors. Shortages and surpluses cannot be observed directly; they can only be indirectly inferred from the responsiveness of employment to wage changes.
Even with these limitations, available data do not show any clear indication of a shortage or a surplus of engineering technicians or technologists. This does not preclude the possibility of market imbalances in certain geographic areas, as noted in Chapter 4’s “Shortages” discussion, or temporary imbalances that resolve themselves. Our employer survey shows that many businesses believe that there is an undersupply of these workers (Table 4-16), despite the absence of strong empirical evidence. It is difficult to make sense of reports of hiring difficulties without an understanding of the wage structure, and this information is not easily obtainable.
The significant graying of the ET workforce (Figures 4-5 and 4-6) suggests that these skills may well be needed in greater numbers in the future, as some of our survey respondents from industry indicated (Table 4-19). However, it is worth remembering Freeman’s (2007) caution (Chapter 4, “Trends in Employment, Income, and Age”) about attributing an aging workforce to
a demand for future growth in employment. If an aging workforce is paired with strong new sources of demand, then employers will likely seek new graduates to replace an aging workforce. But, typically, an aging workforce is an indication of business expectations of weak future demand.
Based on the committee’s review of federal data, almost 1,500 programs at more than 700 institutions around the United States provide some form of ET education.1
We found 915 programs at 470 institutions—mostly community colleges and technical institutes—that awarded at least one 2-year degree. Forty-seven institutions awarded more than 100 such degrees in 2012, and there also were 47 institutions that awarded 100 or more 4-year ET degrees. Altogether, 527 programs at 235 institutions awarded at least one 4-year degree. In 2013, these programs awarded about 18,000 4-year and about 37,000 2-year degrees in ET. By comparison, US engineering schools awarded approximately 87,000 4-year degrees and 3,800 2-year degrees that year.
The total of 4- and 2-year degrees awarded each year in ET, although less than the total awarded in engineering, is nevertheless significant. The large number of ET education programs suggests there is a substantial national infrastructure—comprising both personnel and facilities—devoted to educating students in this field.
The majority of ET students enter 2- or 4-year degree programs from high school. In contrast to the situation for most college graduates, who are in their early 20s, however, more than one-quarter of graduates with 4-year degrees are older than 35 (Figure 3-6). Our survey of educators reveals that the proportion of adults, which includes some returning veterans, enrolling in 2-year programs may be even higher (Figure 3-7).
In terms of diversity, the share of students earning 4-year degrees in ET that is black is almost three times the share of students earning 4-year degrees in engineering (10.7 percent vs. 3.8 percent; Table 3-6). Blacks comprise
1 The number of programs could have been considerably higher, particularly at the associate’s-degree level, had the committee chosen to count programs that do not contain the words “engineering” and “technology” (see Appendix Table 3A). This may be an issue particularly for programs in areas of emerging technology (e.g., photonics, advanced materials, nanotechnology, and biotechnology). Future research might look at the similarities and differences between these technician-training initiatives and traditional ET programs.
more than 11 percent of those earning 2-year degrees and more than 17 percent of those earning certificates in ET; in engineering, the proportion earning 2-year degrees is slightly less than 6 percent (NSF, 2013). The percentage of 2-year ET degrees awarded to blacks approaches their representation in the US population, 12.4 percent, and their share of certificates exceeds it. The proportion of 4-year degrees in engineering and ET earned by Hispanics is comparable, about 10 percent. By comparison, the share of Hispanics in the US population is slightly greater than 17 percent. The share of Asians or Pacific Islanders that earns 4-year engineering degrees is almost three times the share that earns 4-year degrees in ET.
In 2013, nearly 18,000 graduates of 2- and 4-year ET programs combined were nonwhite compared with about 27,000 graduates of 2- and 4-year engineering programs. In percentage terms, 32.7 percent of ET graduates and 29.7 percent of engineering graduates were nonwhite. The absolute number of nonwhite, 2-year graduates was much higher in ET, where there were nine times as many degrees awarded as there were in engineering.
Women’s share of 4-year engineering degrees was 65 percent higher than was their share of 4-year degrees in ET (19.8 percent vs. 12 percent), although in both fields women remain significantly underrepresented. Women accounted for only 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of those earning ET certificates and 2-year ET degrees. Black women were the only group of women who earned a larger share of 4-year ET degrees (2.1 percent of the total) than 4-year engineering degrees (1 percent of the total). Their share of 2-year ET degrees (1.7 percent) and ET certificates (1.5 percent) also surpassed their share of 4-year engineering degrees.
FINDING 3: Compared with engineering, ET education programs, particularly at the 2-year level, are more attractive to older students and students currently underrepresented in STEM fields and of less appeal to women overall.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Research is needed to understand why certain segments of the population graduate at higher frequencies from ET programs than they do from engineering programs and why women are even less engaged in ET than they are in engineering. Understanding the reasons for these preferences and trends may allow programs in both domains of engineering to better attract and retain more diverse student populations. The National Science Foundation should consider funding research on factors affecting matriculation, retention, and graduation in
ET. The research might consider, among other factors, socioeconomic issues, such as the need for some students to work while attending school; issues related to the adequacy of secondary school preparation in mathematics and science; the presence and nature of mentoring, peer support, and other mechanisms known to increase enrollment and retention of women and underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields; and the nature of curricular differences between 2- and 4-year ET programs and between 4-year ET and 4-year engineering programs.
Our survey of ET educators indicates that three sources (recent high school graduates, adults changing careers or “upskilling,” and returning military veterans) account for the majority of those entering 2-year ET programs. In 4-year programs, adults and veterans are less dominant sources of students, while transfers from 4-year engineering programs are second only to high school graduates as a source of students. Our survey of educators found that between 30 and 60 percent of 2-year ET programs allow students to transfer to 4-year programs in either ET or engineering (Table 3-7). However, our survey was not very helpful in elucidating the actual movement of students between different types of programs.
ET programs draw students from a number of segments of the population, indicating the field has potentially broad appeal. Our survey of educators showed that transfer options are most available to those in AAS degree programs, but weaknesses in the study’s data collection hamper our ability to gauge the popularity of specific student pathway choices.
Employment of engineering technicians and technologists, which stood at about 400,000 in 2013, has been rising slowly over the past 40 years, growing about 50 percent from 1971 to 2013. By comparison, the engineering workforce nearly doubled during this period, to about 2 million. The committee estimates that about 80 percent of the current ET workforce, or 320,000 individuals, is composed of technician-level workers (Table 4-1). The other 20 percent, roughly 80,000 people, work as technologists. The stock of those with 4-year ET degrees is about 400,000—roughly five times the number of those employed as technologists. By comparison, the stock of those with 4-year engineering degrees is about 4 million, or two times the size of the engineering workforce. It is important to remember that occupational data used in this report are based on work roles associated with specific job titles, not on the degrees individuals may have earned.
A closer look at the workforce reveals that a very small share of technologists—5 percent according to the American Community Survey and 12 percent according to the National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG)—has 4-year degrees in ET. This is in stark contrast to engineering, where 38 percent of those with 4-year degrees work in engineering.2 The largest share of technologists (either 23 or 39 percent, depending on the dataset) has degrees in engineering; smaller, but still significant, shares have degrees in business/management or the life sciences (Table 4-12). Apart from the category “Other,” those with 4-year ET degrees were most likely to be employed as managers (23 percent), as engineers (16 percent), or in computer and information technology occupations (10 percent). These data appear to be somewhat at odds with information collected by the Baccalaureate and Beyond (B&B) survey, which revealed that three-quarters of recent ET degree earners believe their work to be either “closely related” or “somewhat related” to their degree (Table 4-14). However, as noted in Chapter 3, the sample size of ET degree holders in the B&B survey is very small, so extrapolations to the population at large should be viewed with caution.
Over their careers, workers with 4-year ET degrees move increasingly into management-related jobs and, late in their professional lives, into a variety of other occupations, including jobs outside the STEM disciplines in such areas as health care and education (Figure 4-12). The movement of graduates with 4-year engineering degrees into management occurs earlier and is more pronounced, and their employment in other, non-STEM job categories is less of a factor (Figure 4-12).
FINDING 4a: The connection between an ET education and the ET workforce is fairly weak. Those with ET degrees work in a broad range of occupations, and those employed as engineering technologists have a diverse degree background.
Among the factors that influence career choice (and participation in educational programs related to career) is the perceived connection between particular types of work and one’s income-earning potential. Engineering technicians and technologists have received roughly the same compensation, about $50,000 annually (average, in 2015 dollars), over the past 40 years. Average real wages for engineers, on the other hand, have risen a mod-
2 From an analysis of 2013 NSCG data conducted by Donna K. Ginther, Kansas State University, and Shulamit Kahn, Boston University, for the NAE Committee on Understanding the Engineering Education-Workforce Continuum.
est 23 percent, from $70,000 to $86,000 annually, during this period. This roughly 50 percent premium in earnings potential for engineers may help explain why the significant share of those with 4-year ET degrees works as engineers. To the extent that those with ET degrees are doing similar or the same work as those with 4-year engineering degrees, as some of our survey respondents indicate (Table 4-7), employers may have an incentive to hire the less-expensive (i.e., ET-degreed) worker.
As noted in Chapter 4’s discussion of trends in employment, income, and age, two datasets—the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the American Community Survey (ACS)—compare salaries of technicians to those of technologists. Although CPS shows a salary differential between technicians and technologists of almost 25 percent for a single year (2013 in Table 4-3), the gap nearly vanishes when we look at CPS salary data over a longer span (Figure 4-2). The more stable ACS indicates a wage gap of about 9 percent. In contrast to the situation in ET, there is a 77 percent salary differential between engineers and engineering technologists according to ACS.
FINDING 4b: Though average salary data hide potential low- and high-salaried outliers, the overall gap in earnings between technicians and technologists is quite small compared with the differential between engineering technologists and engineers. The relatively small salary premium for technologists, as compared with technicians, may be reducing incentives for entry into 4-year ET programs as well as tamping down overall interest in technologist jobs. Conversely, the relatively high salary potential of technician-level jobs may serve to increase interest in these jobs and educational pathways to them.
RECOMMENDATION 4: Research is needed to better understand the reasons for the apparent loose coupling of degree attainment and employment in engineering technology. Such research might consider how factors such as the salary differential between ET and engineering jobs and lack of ET wage growth may be influencing students’ academic and career choices. These and related questions might be addressed in studies supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) or by revisions in relevant survey instruments administered by NSF, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This report presents data both from federal sources and from the committee’s own surveys that shed light on the education and employment of engineering technicians and technologists. However, as noted earlier in this chapter and detailed in other parts of the report, there is considerable confusion surrounding the nature of ET. Unclear terminology and the proliferation of ET degree titles further muddy understanding of this important segment of the technical workforce.
This confusion and lack of clarity are almost certainly relevant to aspects of data collection and analysis. For example, as noted in Chapter 3’s discussion of degree fields, it is up to a small number of individuals within postsecondary institutions to decide how to code information about the degrees awarded by their academic programs. A full accounting of degree production is part of compliance with the reporting requirements of the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System (IPEDS). The coding scheme itself, the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP), currently includes field and subfield titles within the ET designation that do not contain the term “engineering technology.” It is difficult for the committee to believe that every institutional representative providing data to IPEDS is aware of the nuances surrounding the field of ET. In addition, some federal datasets that utilize postsecondary degree information rely only on CIP’s main field categories, making it impossible to separately analyze subfields within ET.
FINDING 5a: Given the widespread confusion about what constitutes ET education and the inconsistent terminology within the CIP, there is reasonable likelihood of inconsistent coding of ET degree data by postsecondary institutions.
Unlike IPEDS, which is based on institutional reporting, other datasets, such as ACS and NSCG, rely on the submission of self-reports by individual survey participants. These surveys indicate that the stock of 4-year ET degree earners stands at between 435,000 and 480,000, and there are roughly 10 times as many individuals with 4-year degrees in engineering as there are with 4-year degrees in ET (Table 3-1). Both because these data are self-reported and because of confusion about degree types within engineering-related fields, it is possible some individuals with degrees in ET are reporting they have a degree in engineering (and are therefore being counted as engineering-degree recipients). In addition, although we can count the number
of 2-year ET degrees awarded in a particular year, it is not currently possible to accurately gauge the entire stock of these awards.
Despite the popularity of community colleges and the large number of 2-year degrees and certificates awarded by these institutions, there are gaps in our understanding of how these types of credentials relate to further education or employment in ET. In the employment arena, none of the four federal datasets used for this report (ACS, CPS, Occupational Employment Statistics [OES], and NSCG), which capture occupational information, tallies technicians and technologists separately. In Table 4-1, we attempt to estimate the number of employed technicians by pulling out those workers who have a 2-year degree but not a 4-year degree.3 (None of these databases captures information about field for those with 2-year degrees; only ACS and NSCG collect information about field for those with 4-year degrees.) This approach has shortcomings, as we note in Chapter 4, including the possibility that someone with a 2-year degree may have risen through the ranks to assume responsibilities consistent with someone with a 4-year degree in ET or engineering. Or, conversely, someone we counted as a technologist, because the person had a 4-year degree, may have earned that degree in a field unrelated to ET but ended up doing ET-related work after earning one or more certificates or a 2-year degree in the field, or because of relevant on-the-job training.
Just as with the situation of how to sort educational data, the committee believes that an underlying problem with ET employment data relates to the coding process, in this case the System of Occupational Classification (SOC). ACS, CPS, and OES each use the SOC to assign individuals to specific job types.4 The SOC currently does not provide separate job descriptions for technicians and technologists, combining them all into a category called “Engineering technicians, except drafters.” An interagency work group revising the SOC is considering whether to create separate occupational categories for ET technicians and technologists.
FINDING 5b: There are significant, data-related limitations in our ability to understand differences in degree histories, specific job attributes, and educational and employment choices of those working as engineering
3 This can be done only for ACS and CPS, because OES does not collect educational attainment information, and NSCG only collects information about 4-year degrees.
4 NSCG, overseen by the National Science Foundation, uses its own coding system rather than the SOC.
technicians and technologists. This is particularly an issue for tracking of 2-year degrees and for the technician workforce.
RECOMMENDATION 5: The National Center for Education Statistics should consider collecting more comprehensive survey data on individuals participating in sub-baccalaureate postsecondary education. In addition, existing nationally representative surveys, such as ACS, CPS, and NSCG, should consider collecting more detailed information from 4-year degree holders and add questions pertaining to sub-baccalaureate populations, as appropriate. ACS and NSCG, which rely on self-reported data, might consider including prompts in their survey instruments to encourage more accurate reporting of degree information from those with ET degrees.
This report identifies and analyzes information from a variety of sources that sheds light on the education and employment of engineering technicians and technologists in the United States. This important segment of the nation’s STEM workforce has strong historical connections to traditional engineering and shares the same general sensibility toward technical problem solving. At the same time, the pedigree of ET is rooted in application-focused and hands-on learning, perhaps to a greater extent than in engineering.
Our review of the data uncovered a number of issues related to lack of awareness of the field, definitional confusion, pay differentials with engineering, engagement of populations typically underrepresented in STEM education, and the preparedness of ET students to cope with technological change. Data were insufficient to map educational pathways to and from ET in detail, although there is movement between engineering and ET and between 2- and 4-year tracks in ET programs. We found no empirical evidence of national shortages of workers with ET skills, despite an aging ET workforce.
We hope our report spurs greater understanding and further exploration of ET education and of workers with ET-related skills. The recommendations in this final chapter suggest the importance of increasing the public understanding of the field. They encourage the ET education community to undertake a critical self-examination aimed at articulating a clear and compelling value proposition, and to do so in collaboration with colleagues in engineering. And they propose strengthening federal data collection efforts
in ways that will provide more accurate, actionable information for use by both educators and policy makers.
Freeman, R.B. 2007. “Is a Great Labor Shortage Coming? Replacement Demand in the Global Economy.” In Reshaping the American Workforce in a Changing Economy, H. Holzer and D.S. Nightingale, eds. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute Press.
NGSS Lead States. 2014. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Available online at www.nap.edu/read/18290 (February 12, 2016).
NSF (National Science Foundation). 2013. Science and Engineering Indicators 2016. National Science Board. Appendix Tables 2-17 and 2-23. Available online at www.nsf.gov/statistics/2016/nsb20161/#/data (February 25, 2016).
White House. 2011. Office of the Press Secretary. “President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness Announces Industry Leaders’ Commitment to Double Engineering Internships in 2012.” August 31, 2011. Available online at www.whitehouse.gov/thepress-office/2011/08/31/president-s-council-jobs-and-competitiveness-announcesindustry-leaders- (August 10, 2015).