“Engineering is essential to our health and happiness.”
NAE, Changing the Conversation
“Any sufficiently complex technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey
These two statements capture central but possibly paradoxical aspects of the public’s perception of engineering. On the one hand, nearly everything in people’s daily lives is an engineered object or system, often referred to as technology. The cup used for coffee or soup, cellphones, logistics systems that distribute food to supermarkets, trucks that bring it there, buses and trains that convey people to work, houses, apartments, and office buildings, and the environmental systems that make these places habitable—all are engineered. In sum, people all over the world are dependent on engineering for myriad aspects of their quality of life (see box I-1).
Yet many people have no idea how technology is engineered and developed or how it works. Even simple systems seem “magical”—or at least inscrutable—and the “sudden” appearance of a technology may seem inexplicable too. Only 15 to 20 years ago, cell phones were heavy and limited to audio calls. Then, almost overnight it seemed, they could do practically anything, and today smartphones are ubiquitous. Refugees fleeing civil unrest buy them to use the GPS map app.
Of course, it is not essential to know how the operating system of a cell phone works. It is useful, however, for people to have at least a sense of some of the elements necessary to the development of technology, so they can appreciate the array of opportunities for participating in this development and contributing meaningfully to the world around them.
The system of innovation and technology development is diverse and complex, involving research and development organizations in the public and private domains, government funding for basic research, universities, the patent system, the availability of capital, marketing, channels of distribution—and perhaps the most critical element, people. People generate the ideas for innovation and development, and frequently those people are engineers.
Engineers are essential to the creation of new technology, which has been a large contributor to US economic growth over the past century. Thus it is of national importance that the population of engineers available to the labor force is continually replenished and updated to thrive amid changes in technology and the global marketplace. That supply of engineers depends on a system that can be called the engineering education-to-workforce pathway.
To understand this system, the National Academy of Engineering convened a committee of experts to study the characteristics and career choices of engineering graduates, particularly those with a BS or MS degree, who constitute the vast majority of degreed engineers, as well as the characteristics of those with non-engineering degrees who are employed as engineers in the United States (box I-2). The goal was to provide insight into their educational and career pathways and related decision making, the forces that influence their decisions, and the implications for major elements of engineering education-to-workforce pathways—the institutions, people, markets, policies, and other resources involved in the education, training, and employment of engineers.
These pathways are shaped largely by market forces, although some parts are regulated by standards that define a quality engineering education, immigration quotas for engineers entering the workforce from abroad, and professional licensure for engineers in some fields of practice. Arguably, the system has worked well, because the United States has been the innovation engine of the world for the past 75 years, when US engineering expanded and evolved rapidly, leading the world in both driving and responding both to advances in technology and science and to emerging societal needs and wants.
The rewards to US-based engineers for their contributions to the nation’s technological and economic advances are generally substantial. Because of their relative scarcity and unique capabilities, degreed engineers on average are more highly compensated, obtain higher lifetime earnings than other college graduates, and experience below-average unemployment rates. They also have a great deal of career flexibility and occupational mobility, applying their knowledge and skills across a range of engineering, engineering-proximate, and non-engineering occupations during their careers.
In recent years, however, the popular and trade press have been rife with concern that the United States is losing its technology edge and that engineering education-to-workforce pathways may not be functioning as effectively as needed to sustain US technological and economic leadership. One concern is the persistent underrepresentation of women and some racial/ethnic minorities in engineering,1 widely considered a lost opportunity to enhance US innovation. At the same time, some stakeholders believe that the system is not producing enough
1 For this report, the term “underrepresented minority” refers to African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Hispanics of any race, whose representation in engineering is below that of the general US population (by contrast, the proportion of Asian Americans in engineering is higher than their proportion in the US population). This definition is also used in the federal datasets cited in the report (NSF 2013).
new engineers to meet the rapidly growing demand for engineering skills throughout the economy. Others question whether US engineering education is preparing graduates adequately to meet the demands of an increasingly global, dynamic workplace and the changing nature of engineering work. Still others wonder whether opportunities for new engineers are being stunted by an influx of engineers from abroad on temporary visas who may be willing to work for lower wages. The evidence for many of these concerns is based on data that are scant, ambiguous, and occasionally contradictory, but they raise questions as to whether improvements could and should be made to the education-to-workforce pathways. This report explores many of these concerns and questions.
Families, teachers, and guidance counselors play a critical role in determining who pursues an engineering education and career. The more these advisors know about engineering and engineering career pathways, the more they can help students make informed decisions. And the advice needed and factors affecting those decisions may differ based on gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, which also influence students’ persistence in an engineering program.
The four to six years of an undergraduate engineering education program are the most well defined part of the pathways. Once graduates enter the labor force, they can choose from a broad spectrum of career paths, involving jobs not always described as engineering jobs. While roughly 35 percent of engineering degree holders work in engineering occupations narrowly defined, another 45 percent work in engineering management, computing, and engineering-related occupations2 that draw heavily on their technical engineering skills and training (what this report calls engineering-proximate occupations). The remaining fifth of engineering graduates apply their
2 The NSF defines “engineering-related” jobs as electrical, electronic, industrial, mechanical, or other technicians or technologists; drafting, surveying, and mapping technicians; surveyors or architects (see appendix A).
engineering skills and training in occupations entirely unrelated to science and engineering. In addition, significant numbers of workers without an engineering degree work in engineering occupations. Thus trying to size and describe the engineering workforce is not easy.
Chapter 1 of this report sets out definitions of working engineers—based on their degree, occupation, or use of engineering skills—and documents their educational backgrounds, demographics, occupational and sectoral distribution, specific work activities, and career pathways. The chapter also examines the economic returns to an engineering degree, the dynamics of the engineering labor market, and major forces, including technological changes and globalization, that shape the market and with it the educational and career pathways of engineers. Chapter 2 reviews changing workplace demands for engineering graduates’ skills and knowledge and implications for engineering education. Chapter 3 examines factors that influence the decision making of potential and degreed engineers, starting with K–12 preparation and then considering experiences through college and into the workforce, with a focus on women and racial/ethnic minorities who are significantly underrepresented in engineering education and the engineering labor force. Chapter 4 presents the committee’s major findings and recommendations, which are summarized in the report’s Executive Summary. Commissioned white papers with data and analysis used by the committee are provided in the appendices in addition to other background materials.
NSF [National Science Foundation]. 2013. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2013. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics Special Report NSF 13-304. Arlington, VA. Available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.