Keeping the pipeline filled with engineers essential for Wisconsin business

If you want to know why engineering appears once again on the rise as a career choice, just check out Education News and its “Career Path” database for average salaries for engineers.

Several leading categories of engineers — biomedical, civil, computer, electrical, mechanical, and software — show Wisconsin salaries well above the state’s private-sector salary average. Those average salaries ranged from $54,600 for a civil engineer to $76,500 for a biomedical engineer.

Reasons include a relatively long slide in the supply of engineering graduates, which appears to have reversed itself nationally in recent years, and an increase in the demand for engineers in many sectors of the modern economy.

At the UW-Madison College of Engineering, the state’s largest engineering school, the past few years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of engineering students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. There were about 4,850 students enrolled in the fall of 2014, which exceeded what the college predicted for the fall of 2015.

The enrollment turnaround began in the 2009-10 academic year and has continued ever since, with the most rapid increases coming in the past three years.

The upward swing has taken place despite “differential tuition” (it costs more to attend the engineering school overall than some other UW-Madison programs), more complicated admission policies, and no net increase in the number of faculty within the college.

Much of the credit for the surge in engineering interest goes to the economy.

Engineering has become a hot career in a world where some of the “grand challenges” involve finding solutions for energy production and storage, providing clean water, managing climate change, developing new drugs, improving transportation systems, exploring new types of materials, and finding ways to better manage urban populations and their needs. Engineers are usually at the center of finding solutions to those problems.

Wisconsin employers are expected to hire more engineers. A recent report by Georgetown University noted that, by 2020, demand in Wisconsin’s professional, scientific, and technical services sectors will increase by 14,890 jobs from 127,510 in 2010 to 142,400 in 2020. That’s a 12% increase.

Within engineering itself, the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the demand for biomedical, environmental, civil, and petroleum engineers will grow by double digits by 2022.

Some credit also rests with the overall quality of the programs at Wisconsin’s major engineering schools, which also include UW-Stout, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Platteville, the Milwaukee School of Engineering, and Marquette University.

For example, UW-Madison places high in some key national rankings: third in nuclear engineering, sixth in chemical engineering, sixth in online degree programs, 10th in undergraduate industrial and manufacturing engineering, and 14th overall in the most recent U.S. News & World Report Best College Rankings. It was ranked no lower than 23rd in any major program.

That helps to explain why the college attracted a $25 million gift in mid-2014 from The Grainger Foundation. That donation will help create an endowment for professorships, faculty scholar awards, and post-doctoral fellowships and will also support an interdisciplinary approach — reflected throughout much of engineering today — that will lead to more collaboration in areas such as materials and manufacturing, energy and consumer goods, and health care.

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Finally, some credit for the engineering spike goes to the success of efforts to produce more students who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

The STEM revolution in schools — starting in elementary schools and ranging through the high school years — has been a persistent effort. Not only are educators themselves involved, so are businesspeople who recognize the nation must produce more STEM graduates to meet emerging workforce needs. The magazine Science reported in mid-2014 that the United States appears to be on pace to meet the Obama administration’s goal of producing more college graduates in STEM fields.

While not all STEM graduates wind up in jobs in their chosen fields, economists and others say the need for science-literate workers in today’s economy is intense.

“The reward for an engineering degree is better career success,” said James Brown, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based STEM Education Coalition. “There are no guarantees in this economy, but you know you’re going to do better if you’re in a STEM field than any other field.”

With a $300 million cut in the UW System’s budget proposed for the next two years, the Wisconsin Legislature may consider what that will mean to the state’s employers — especially those expecting to hire engineers and other STEM graduates in coming years. Wisconsin engineering schools are helping fill the economy’s demand for talent. The challenge is ensuring those schools have the resources to satisfy student interest and business needs.

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