Engineering skills and knowledge are foundational to technological innovation and development that drive long-term economic growth and help solve societal challenges. Therefore, to ensure national competitiveness and quality of life it is important to understand and to continuously adapt and improve the educational and career pathways of engineers in the United States. To acquire this understanding it is necessary to study the people with engineering skills and knowledge as well as the evolving system of institutions, policies, markets, people, and other resources that together prepare, deploy, and replenish the nation’s engineering workforce.
This study found significant good news regarding the engineering profession. The data show that engineers are rewarded for their work with relatively higher salaries than other college graduates and job satisfaction on par with employees in all US sectors. For this to be sustained and strengthened, a robust and resilient engineering education system, profession, and workforce must be nurtured. Factors such as increasing globalization and changing US demographics should be taken into consideration. This report addresses a few key questions: How well is the US engineering education-workforce system preparing and using engineers? What adaptations are needed to ensure that this system can respond effectively and expediently to current and future needs?
This chapter presents the committee’s major findings and recommends specific actions by stakeholders to strengthen and ensure the vitality of the nation’s engineering education-workforce pathways.
Engineering is a dynamic discipline and practice that integrates and applies knowledge from various fields and draws on a broad and expanding portfolio of technical as well as professional skills, such as creativity and design, oral and written communication, teamwork and leadership, interdisciplinary thinking, experience with business and entrepreneurship, and multicultural understanding. Trained engineers use their knowledge and skills in a variety of occupations and industries and across all sectors of society.
This report defines the nation’s engineering labor force as comprising three overlapping groups: (1) those who work in engineering occupations narrowly defined regardless of educational background, (2) those with engineering degrees in the overall labor force, and (3) those with engineering degrees who apply the skills and knowledge associated with their degree on the job regardless of occupation. About 19 percent of those who work in engineering occupations hold degrees in other STEM fields or in business. Nearly two thirds of employed engineering BS degree holders work in for-profit companies (mostly large and very large firms), 14 percent work in
the government sector, roughly 12 percent are self-employed, and the rest are divided between education and the nonprofit sector. The percentage of engineering bachelor’s degree holders employed in the United States working in engineering occupations narrowly defined is about 35 percent, and another 45 percent are in occupations closely associated with engineering that draw heavily on their technical and professional engineering knowledge and skills (engineering-proximate occupations):
- management occupations associated with engineering (21 percent),
- computing (15 percent),
- science and engineering (S&E)-related (e.g., engineering technicians, engineering technologists, architects) (6 percent), or
- other S&E (3 percent).
The remaining 20 percent of people with engineering bachelor’s degrees work in non-S&E, nonmanagement occupations (15 percent) and management positions not related to S&E (3 percent). Engineers perform a variety of work tasks, have the highest annual compensation and lifelong earnings of all bachelor’s degree holders, and have the lowest unemployment rates of college degree holders regardless of their occupation.
Finding: The vast majority of those formally trained in engineering work in occupations that draw heavily on their technical and professional engineering knowledge and skills. Their professional and problem-solving skills are also used in occupations with little connection to the more technical aspects of engineering. Engineers work in many different industries and across all sectors of society.
Finding: Engineers typically perform a variety of tasks in their jobs—management of people or projects; development and design; and computer programming, production, and quality management. Management is a major component of engineering work, as are computing and the design of equipment, processes, structures, and/or physical or computational models.
Finding: Engineering graduates working in engineering, engineering-proximate, and non-engineering-related occupations typically have higher career earnings than their peers with bachelor’s degrees in other fields, the lowest rate of unemployment (less than 3 percent) of all bachelor’s degree holders, and considerable career flexibility.
Finding: Engineering graduates working in engineering, engineering-proximate, and non-engineering-related occupations typically have high levels of career and work satisfaction.
White and Asian males constitute the vast majority of employed degreed engineers and those who work in engineering occupations. The lack of diversity in engineering presents challenges to the nation in two primary ways. First, there are innovation and creativity costs associated with not using the skills and talents of major parts of the US population—problems or opportunities not identified, products not built, designs not considered, constraints not understood, and processes not invented when the diversity of life experiences engaged in engineering is limited.1 Second, given the important roles of engineers in identifying, defining, and solving problems that face society, and the many material, professional, social, and psychological rewards to those who learn and apply the knowledge and skills of engineering, it is a serious matter of social justice and equity that Americans from all backgrounds be encouraged and supported in the study and practice of engineering.
1 Former NAE president Wm. A. Wulf thus characterized the opportunity costs to engineering from the lack of diversity. The Bridge 28(4):8–13.
Finding: Although some disciplines have greater diversity than others, overall the US engineering workforce remains characterized by limited gender, ethnic, and racial diversity. White and Asian males dominate the makeup of this workforce, while women, African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Hispanics of any race remain significantly underrepresented.
Finding: Efforts to increase the representation of women and other underrepresented groups in engineering have improved diversity in some disciplines but overall have proven to be less effective than desired.
Finding: There are at least two compelling reasons why the nation should be concerned about engineering’s diversity challenge: the creativity and innovation costs of unused skills and talent, and equity/social justice.
Finding: Many interrelated internal and external (personal and societal or cultural) factors influence the decision making of students and graduates in ways that contribute to engineering’s diversity challenge.
Finding: The low numbers of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering education and the engineering workforce dictate that the pathways and motivations of every group be considered fully and that the entire engineering community—educators, employers, research funders, policymakers, and engineering professionals—work collaboratively to improve diversity.
Finding: Because people with diverse gender and racial/ethnic identities may have different motivations and pathways in engineering, it is imperative to consider which educational and programmatic interventions are most effective in welcoming, supporting, and advancing those from underrepresented backgrounds. It is essential to continue developing, implementing, and evaluating well-designed educational and training interventions to both attract and retain women and underrepresented minorities and to support all individuals in engineering. It is equally important to change the perceived and real culture(s) of engineering to welcome all individuals regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or background. Recognition of bias, support for work-life balance, and equal opportunity for training and advancement will help create a supportive environment for all employees.
Recommendation 1: Engineering deans, department chairs, and faculty, K–12 teachers and administrators, and engineering professionals in industry and government who work with educators at any level should make concerted efforts to foster an inclusive, welcoming climate/culture for all students interested in engineering and STEM more broadly, including efforts to recognize and address implicit and explicit bias in their employees and to create a more welcoming and inclusive engineering culture.
Recommendation 2: Organizations that employ engineers should examine their promotion practices and pay to ensure that they are equitable across gender, race, ethnicity, and other demographics. In addition, to promote the job satisfaction, company commitment, and retention of their engineering workforce, companies should recognize and address implicit and explicit bias in their employees and work to create a more welcoming and inclusive engineering culture.
Recommendation 3: Researchers, educators, employers, public and private funders, and policymakers should consider the interplay of multiple internal and external influences over time on an individual’s educational and career decisions when developing interventions to increase the representation of all populations in engineering. Informed by this systems perspective, these and other stakeholders in the nation’s engineering education and workforce enterprise should work together to develop, test, and coordinate innovative, mutually reinforcing initiatives that produce a significant, positive, collective impact on engineering’s diversity challenge rather than pursuing many individual, discrete, largely disconnected/isolated, and low-impact initiatives.
THE ENGINEERING COMMUNITY NEEDS TO BETTER COMMUNICATE TO DIVERSE POPULATIONS THE OPPORTUNITIES AFFORDED BY AN ENGINEERING DEGREE
Although engineering enrollments are increasing in US universities and engineers have very low rates of unemployment, the lack of diversity in engineering suggests that many students do not have adequate information about the requirements, rewards, goals, and social value of engineering before deciding whether to enter the field. This is especially true for students affected by systemic disparities in quality K–12 education, including adequate facilities and resources in schools and access to precollege math or science classes required for the study of engineering. Even students who attend well-resourced schools may not consider or be prepared for an engineering major if they are unaware of the profession. It is therefore essential that all precollege students and their families, especially those from populations that are underrepresented or marginalized in engineering, understand the value of engineering to society as well as its career-related benefits.
Finding: Lack of knowledge about the profession is a significant barrier for potential engineers from populations underrepresented in engineering. Messages that describe engineering as a field that involves understanding, defining, and solving important societal problems using a mix of technical and professional skills, interdisciplinary work, social consciousness, creativity, and multicultural understanding impart knowledge of the field to all students, and seem to be particularly important for female and underrepresented minority (URM; African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Hispanics of any race) students, who otherwise may not see engineering as a viable option for themselves.
The committee recommends that the engineering community—industry, academia, engineering societies, government, and other stakeholders—address potentially negative stereotypes of engineering and more effectively communicate the nature of engineering work and opportunities associated with an engineering degree to women, underrepresented minorities, and other marginalized groups that remain significantly underrepresented in engineering, both to increase diversity of perspective and with it the innovativeness and creativity of the nation’s technical workforce and to provide opportunities to individuals from these populations. Specifically, the committee recommends the following actions:
Recommendation 4: Engineering faculty, professional societies, employers, and other engineering outreach organizations should provide K–12 students, their families, and K–12 educators and guidance counselors with current, accurate information about engineering, both to counter inaccurate stereotypes of the nature of engineering work and the people who do it and to prepare students to navigate their education and enter the workforce.
Recommendation 5: Engineering professional societies, employers, and other engineering outreach organizations should work with families, K–12 educators, and guidance counselors to cultivate all students’ interest in exploring an engineering major and career by communicating that engineering develops professional as well as technical skills and equips graduates to do interesting work in a wide range of occupations, help define and solve important problems for people and society, and make a positive difference in the world. In addition, K–12 educators and guidance counselors should help families of K–12 students in particular understand the utility and rewards of an engineering degree, such as the versatility of the technical and professional skills learned, access to many different careers, and high initial and lifelong salaries.
Recommendation 6: All who are involved in K–12 teacher training and professional development—such as schools of education, engineering faculty, professional societies, and K–12 administrators—should encourage and support K–12 STEM educators’ efforts to use inclusive teaching practices that create safe and inclusive learning environments to support and actively engage students from different backgrounds.
The US engineering education enterprise has been largely successful in educating engineers capable of working in many occupations and capacities that have advanced the country’s innovative and economic strength and benefited all segments of society. Given the range of skills they acquire in their studies and training, engineering graduates are well equipped to respond to changes in technology, economic conditions, or personal interests. But to ensure that US-based engineers have the technical and professional skills required to compete globally and meet the needs of the nation in the future, US engineering education must continuously adapt to advances in science and technology fields—especially computing and data science, which provide tools that engineers in all disciplines must learn to use—and the changing needs of industry, society, and workers themselves. In addition, the ability to learn over the course of an individual’s career must be taught in undergraduate education and supported by industry.
Finding: The disciplinary foundations of engineering are expanding with the influence and incorporation of computing, the life sciences, the social and behavioral sciences, business management concepts and skills, and entrepreneurship. In particular, computing and data science knowledge and skills are increasingly fundamental to a range of engineering applications; computing occupations employ over 15 percent of all engineering graduates and are projected to grow rapidly over the coming decade. Engineering schools need to recognize and support this interaction between engineering and computer science in all disciplines, whether with more required courses for all majors or the teaching of computing skills as part of discipline-specific courses.
Finding: Beyond strong technical skills, more and more employers expect engineering graduates to have experience and competence in professional areas such as creativity and design, oral and written communication, teamwork and leadership, interdisciplinary thinking, business management and entrepreneurship, and multicultural understanding.
Finding: Advances in understanding of how people learn engineering, corresponding evidence-based innovations in pedagogy and technological tools for the education of engineers, and the digital fluency of incoming generations of students are all creating new needs and opportunities for engineering education to adapt. These curricular changes both improve graduates’ professional and lifelong learning skills and attract more women and underrepresented minorities to the field.
Finding: Given trends in global markets for engineering talent and the pace of change in technology, business practices, and other areas, engineers must be prepared to pursue lifelong learning activities, including online programs, to keep current their technical and professional skills and knowledge.
To stay up to date with advances and rapid changes in science and technology, the evolving needs and expectations of engineers’ diverse work environments, and innovations in engineering education, engineering educators (i.e., administrators, deans, department heads, faculty) should take the following actions:
Recommendation 7: Engineering deans, department chairs, and faculty should acknowledge computing and computer science (CS) as a foundational knowledge and skill domain of modern engineering education and practice across all disciplines, and continue to incorporate computing/CS more pervasively into engineering degree programs.
Recommendation 8: Engineering deans, department chairs, and senior faculty should promote and reward the adoption of evidence-based best practices in engineering pedagogy, including active and experiential learning and other student-centered practices that promote real-world applications of STEM concepts to complex sociotechnical problems like those that engineers will face in their work.
Recommendation 9: Engineering deans, department chairs, and faculty should strengthen partnerships with industry and other employers to make design courses and high-quality “real-world” engineering experiences—including internships, co-ops, mentored research projects, and other curricular and cocurricular activities and programs (e.g., Engineers Without Borders, Engineering Projects in Community Service [EPICS], the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program)—available to students as an integral part of all undergraduate engineering programs. These educational elements help develop students’ professional and technical skills while providing a window on the active application of engineering knowledge and skills in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.
Recommendation 10: Engineering deans, department chairs, and faculty should adapt teaching and career guidance to better reflect the broad spectrum of engineering, engineering-proximate, and non-engineering occupations available to engineering graduates. To this end, they should engage (1) educators on curricular and cocurricular options and adaptations and (2) alumni who work in engineering, engineering-proximate, and non-engineering occupations and those who employ them to advise students on career options in the many different industries, jobs, and sectors where engineering knowledge and skills are valued and can be applied.
Recommendation 11: Engineering deans, department chairs, and faculty should work closely with employers and engineering professional societies to (1) identify and advance the desired professional and technical skills of working engineering professionals, by offering or supporting continuing education to expand skills and knowledge, and (2) enhance the currency and quality of faculty teaching by supporting faculty sabbaticals with engineering employers, the use of adjunct faculty drawn from the ranks of working engineers, faculty mentoring of undergraduate design projects involving engineering employer sponsors, or seminar series about cutting-edge technologies and advances in engineering pedagogy.
RESEARCH IS NEEDED TO UNDERSTAND THE EFFECTS OF FOREIGN-BORN STUDENTS WITH TEMPORARY VISAS ON US ENGINEERING EDUCATION
The nature and dynamics of skilled immigration (i.e., immigrants with advanced skills and training, especially in technical fields), whether in the form of foreign students or nonstudent immigrants, and its impact on US engineering education, engineering labor markets, and the educational and career pathways of US natives in engineering are important. But the subject is sufficiently expansive and complex that the committee intentionally did not focus its fact finding and deliberation in this area. While the committee considers the broad topic of skilled immigration, which has been the subject of extensive research, worthy of a full, separate consensus study, the recent growth in undergraduate enrollment of foreign-born students on temporary visas in US engineering schools is a less studied piece of the skilled immigration puzzle that warrants additional attention.
Finding: Foreign-born students on temporary visas have long constituted a large share of US engineering school enrollments at the graduate level, whereas the rapid growth of foreign-born temporary resident student enrollments in undergraduate engineering programs is more recent. Accordingly, the impacts of foreign student enrollments have been studied more extensively at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level. Additional data gathering and research are needed on the nature and impact of foreign-born temporary resident student enrollments in US engineering programs, especially at the undergraduate level.
Recommendation 12: Universities, statistical agencies, and the higher education research community should monitor and evaluate the effects of growing enrollment of foreign-born students on temporary visas in engineering, particularly at the undergraduate level, on the educational and career choices as well as the engineering education experiences of both domestic and foreign students, and on host institutions of higher learning.
As the occupational distribution, work activities, and career pathways of engineering graduates make clear, the demand for engineering skills is much greater than that of engineering occupations alone. Yet national survey-based datasets provide only periodic snapshots of where engineering graduates are employed, the tasks they perform, or the educational background and job tasks of those in engineering occupations. In addition, the analysis that can be done for underrepresented minorities is limited by small sample sizes in surveys.
Finding: National survey-based datasets provide only limited insight into the dynamics of the market for engineering skills and knowledge, its connections to the educational enterprise, and broader implications.
Survey data can be integrated with “administrative data”—data collected by academic institutions, government agencies, and other organizations for purposes such as administrative recordkeeping, transactions, registration, and reporting. The resulting information can yield a deeper, more fine-grained understanding of the educational and career trajectories of engineering graduates and the relationship between engineering education, training, and workforce outcomes. Aggregating these datasets for research purposes is achievable, but requires a considered approach, resources to identify and integrate data, efforts to provide security and confidentiality of the data, and cooperation between researchers and owners of the administrative data.
Finding: Despite some challenges to their use, administrative data can both supplement survey data and offer a completely new source of data to provide a more complete picture of the education, career paths, and training of engineers.
Recommendation 13: Researchers and policymakers should work with institutions of higher education, federal, state, and local government agencies, and other entities that hold administrative data to identify and build on administrative data resources to establish a better empirical foundation for research on the educational and career paths of engineers using a wide variety of definitions of what it means to be an engineer. Specifically, they should:
- Identify resources to collect and integrate longitudinal administrative records from university transcript data and data from statistical agencies.
- Use the data for characterizing student educational pathways (including student retention in higher education), employment choices, earnings and employment dynamics, and the economic returns to the costs of an engineering degree.
- Maintain the confidential data in secure environments for analysis by authorized researchers for the purposes of building a robust evidence base to inform policy.
Engineering skills and knowledge are foundational to the innovation and technological development that drive long-term economic growth and help solve major societal challenges. Therefore it is important to understand the educational and career pathways of engineers. Using the data available, this report presents a comprehensive portrait of US engineers, their education, and their careers and career pathways.
The US engineering education system produces versatile and valuable members of the country’s technical workforce. Engineering enrollments are increasing in US universities and engineers have very low rates of unemployment, indicating a healthy supply and demand for engineers. Engineering graduates have remarkable flexibility in a variety of careers, including management, and are employed and rewarded in other professional domains. In addition, the substantial share of those working as engineers who do not have engineering degrees contribute in important ways to the US economy, and benefit financially and in other ways. This portrait of engineering suggests a field that has impact far beyond traditional measures.
At the same time and for a variety of reasons, women and individuals from certain minority populations continue to be underrepresented in engineering degree pathways and careers. For this reason alone, it is fair to say that US engineering is not meeting its full potential.