Future Career Demand for Engineers: Shortage or Surplus

Abstract

The future career demand for engineers is a controversial topic that requires future investigation based on secondary evidence. Currently, the engineering market lacks qualified personnel such as engineers and scientists and therefore is considered as non-productive, which negatively reflects on the educational efforts. Generally speaking, the paper argues on the employment problem of engineers in the future, but in fact, the focus of our discussion is whether there should be more engineers and scientists employed and learned overall. It is not surprising that the controversy is prosperous, because the answer to this question ultimately depends on a person’s value judgment, on market and non-market variables. However, this report provides empirical evidence and data to help the reader better understand the trend for the subject that matters based on academic research, recent publications, and personal experiences related to engineering career planning.

Introduction

Educational planning for the future career demand is an essential part of forecasting occupational needs in the area of civil engineering. It is an integral part of future education, which is pursued by developing countries in their efforts of capturing market shares and talent exchange efforts. However, in recent years, concerns about the shortage of skilled labor, international competitiveness, changes in the workforce structure, and other issues such as professional biases of scientists and engineers, became prominent. Previously, these concerns were reported by the National Science Foundation, predicting that by 2006, the total number of bachelor’s degrees in natural sciences and engineering would be reduced by 675,000 (National Science Foundation, 2015). The finding itself appeared to be rather controversial since it was primarily based on the demographic data related to declining in university-age groups during the period between 1990 and 2006 (National Science Foundation, 2015). However, recent advancements in the areas of the Internet of Things (IoT), computer engineering, and process automation suggest that civil engineers become more demanded. To explain this trend uncertainty, it is further argued that future career demand for engineers will increase given the unsolicited strategies for reducing investment in their education.

Background

Currently, the career demand planning for future engineers is primarily guided by the principles of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) capability as denoted by the National Science Board (National Science Foundation, 2015). The STEM framework primarily relates to scientists and engineers working on the variety of research and development projects, IT innovations, and implementation of smart technologies evolved as a part of the IoT paradigm. STEM workforce itself is highly heterogeneous since one comprises many sub-workforces that are distinguished based on employment sector, industry, or geographic distribution (National Science Foundation, 2015). Meanwhile, the differentiation among civil engineers and other STEM representatives is yet to be evaluated. Henceforth, when the STEM workforce contribution is overgeneralized, incorrect opinions about the workforce condition are presented.

Within the STEM workforce framework, it is also evident that engineering itself has been unreasonably equated to newly emerging occupations in the area of information and communication technology (ICT). While these areas are related, it is important bearing in mind that programming, web design, and civil engineering should be considered as separate manifestations of STEM applicability and therefore require different skills from its practitioners. For instance, a proficient engineer is supposed to explore and analyze the scientific problem from the core, searching for the evidence externally and applying personal expertise internally. Meanwhile, the ICT specialist should apply external expertise to solve the technical problem because of the dynamically changing business requirements and technological evolution. Therefore, it is important to consider side views on STEM implementation in various fields of science based on the recent literature publications.

The perspectives on STEM framework feasibility were actively voiced and investigated in academic field of science. For instance, Atkinson and Pennington (2015) explored the aspect of engineering employees talking about the lack of talents on the market, while this statement was obscured by the fact of 13% unemployment among engineering graduates in the UK. It was mentioned that there is a problem of obtaining the job shortly after graduation since employers are seeking a combination of education and work experience even for the junior level positions. Based on the cross-sectional data analysis, Atkinson and Pennington (2015) found that “there is no single reason for unemployment amongst engineering graduates” (p. 7), suggesting that early engagement with career planning, as well as final year application process stimulation should change the workforce adoption in the labor market.

The aforementioned complexities about future career paths were also investigated by Stiwne and Jungert (2010) based on the longitudinal analysis of engineering student cohorts’ employment behavior within one year after graduation. According to the study results, there is a significant difference between student cohorts in terms of personal reflection on curricular design match to the choice of individual jobs, as well as future job satisfaction levels. Furthermore, Stiwne and Jungert (2010) found that the technical mastery of civil engineers required emotional development by learning generic skills and understanding cultural values on the job. Eventually, the authors provided a reasonable perspective on the importance of acquiring subject-specific knowledge on the job, including time-management and human problem-solving skills, which otherwise are not deeply covered during university courses. Nevertheless, authors are weak in their explanations of practical career path choice and its implementation in the core curriculum, since the research is based on a rather limited scope of views and research population.

The unemployment among engineering graduates was further explored by Patro and Lohit (2014) based on the case of recession times and artificially elevated requirements for technological proficiency during the crisis periods. Specifically, the authors focused on explaining the economic gap of balancing engineering talent supply when the demand for goods and services decreases, even if educational facilities are still capable of teaching common engineering topics. Moreover, Patro and Lohit (2014) used the case of India for the cross-sectoral comparison of student admissions to various university departments, suggesting that during the period between 2010 and 2013 the predominant interest was concentrated either on engineering or commerce directions, while science significantly lagged behind the other disciplines. Hence, recession could be seen as a barrier to realizing engineering ambitions for the fellow student population, leading to the rising unemployment levels and changes in anticipated career paths.

Despite the overall negative perspective on engineering career development, recent studies admitted the importance of scientific and engineering knowledge on economic development and organizational productivity. For instance, Barth et al. (2017) admitted that there is a lack of efforts in engaging fellow scientists and engineers in commercially-focused projects, where access to laboratories and research centers is limited because of corporate policies. In productivity terms, Barth et al. (2017) suggested that such a stance leads to increased productivity and operational costs, where fellow engineers are hired to perform administrative rather than scientific work, further creating a gap in manufacturing skill development. However, such controversy was further reported as the one being challenged by emerging tech enterprises, with an increase of engineering labor productivity of 3.5% annually compared to the overall improvement of 2% in the entire economy (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). Hence, it is worth exploring the problem of engineering graduates’ unemployment from the perspective of barriers in communication, where the uncertainty is caused by commercial organizations that do not set clear employment standards on the one hand and educational facilities that attempt to match outdated teaching requirements alternatively.

Apart from the scientific publications, the following observations were grasped among the opinion leaders and contributors in the field of engineering science. For instance, Baker (2017) focuses on the quality decline in all STEM majors, and the reasons for that decline related to unreasonably high expectations of employers, lack of mentoring programs, complex stacks, disconnected formal education, and overall problem-solving experience. Moreover, Baker (2017) reflected on the U.S. educational problem of graduating fewer STEM majors as a percentage of the overall learning population. For instance, China has roughly 4 times the population of the U.S. in a similar area of study, which suggests that competition in hiring engineering students strongly varies across geographies (Baker, 2017). Furthermore, it was also mentioned that there is a difference in the job opening in STEM fields, where computing engineering holds the major ground as of 120,000 total job openings available for fellow graduates (Baker, 2017). Hence, there is a lack of common understanding of the engineering career perspectives, which eventually confuses both educational leaders and young graduates.

Finally, it is worth admitting that engineering career problems have been prominently explored in the past, which suggests that the problem of graduate employment was not appropriately addressed for a significant period of time. First, Hansen (1961) concluded that from 1950 to 1955, the downward trend of productive employment of STEM workers was not reversed, although there is little evidence of workforce shortage. However, it may indicate that the overall decrease is even smaller, suggesting that economic changes forced the graduates to change employment priorities. Second, Hansen (1961) admitted that significant transformations in the composition or quality are dangerous to compare changes in relative income employment positions. Third, the availability of the latest data indicates a significant reversal of the long-term deterioration of the relative income status of engineers (Hansen, 1961). In fact, from 1953 to 1958, this reversal demonstrated increasing growth, indicating that engineers demonstrate more ambiguity in dealing with common tasks. Finally, Hansen (1961) combined previous research studies and came up with his conclusions about the role of engineering careers and relevant educational planning. However, the conclusion is somewhat outdated because one was published almost 60 years ago.

Proposed Solutions

Based on the initial analysis, two focal directions were chosen to address the problem of employment among fellow engineers concentrating on the issue of shortage rather than surplus. First, the common educational paradigm has been considered as the intervention area, suggesting that currently there is a problem with balancing business-oriented curriculum against purely technical knowledge acquired during the lab practice. Specifically, it might be referred to the previously discussed scholarly article by Patro and Lohit (2014). There it is clearly stated that commercial specialties are equally appreciated as engineering ones, which means that technical knowledge is similarly equated to communication skills. However, civil engineering is a more complex field of science that requires focused thinking, testing, and analysis, which are more natural to people with a technical mindset. Hence, it is proposed to differentiate the scope of learning materials and provide practical lessons for engineering students to develop their skills in engineering rather than communication or technical writing, suggesting that profound experience in technology management stem from the practice.

The second solution emerges from the need for better integration of economic supply and demand that reduces the effect of unemployment surplus in the engineering area. Strategically, it means that STEM-focused universities should develop more productive relationships with potential engineering-centered employers, which could be achieved through the following options. Barth et al. (2017) suggested that such effort could be met by arranging apprenticeship programs, where fellow engineering students are invited for practical courses during summer vacations or, in case of the current circumstances, remote courses sponsored by employers. Alternatively, university management might seek the opportunities in engaging potential employers in providing grants for the best engineering students in various STEM areas, while bearing in mind already existing overpopulation in the ICT area (Atkinson & Pennington, 2015). Specific examples might include cooperation on teaching modules that are integrated in core curriculums, guest speaking meetings, lab practices, and opportunities for presenting innovative solutions during online conferences (Baker, 2017; National Science Foundation, 2015). However, these solutions might require additional estimations in terms of budgeting, which is eventually complex during crisis times and requires further evaluation in terms of the cost-benefit perspective.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Overall, the reflection on the previous experience and future potential of engineering career planning suggests that the field of science is yet to be developed to overcome the problem of shortage. Unfortunately, recent evidence shows that engineering faculties and educational departments are using outdated approaches in motivating fellow students and practitioners in pursuing engineering careers. The commercial-oriented focus became predominant in meeting similar endeavors, while there is a lack of cooperation between organizations that seek talented engineers and universities that are capable of graduating those. Hence, it is not an exaggeration to conclude that the lack of focus on engineering development hinders economic growth, primarily because of the inconsistency in meeting demand and supply parameters already criticized by academic researchers several decades ago.

To address the aforementioned concerns, the following recommendations are proposed. First, it is important to appeal for better integration of academic studies and engineering practice to avoid unnecessary work performed by fellow learners, while motivating them to perform better and stick to the commercial needs in their internships or apprenticeships. Second, it is crucial to engage newly graduated engineers in teaching or coaching practice, which is required to ensure that the overall learning curriculum is not outdated and is based on the recent provisions of STEM and engineering technologies in particular. Third, it is important to establish a collaborative framework that outlines the responsibilities of employers and educational facilities in workforce management, assuming that specific retention strategies might be required to persuade recent engineering graduates in pursuing chosen career paths. Finally, it is advised to recruit volunteers and contributors to promote the aforementioned ideas in the academic environment to ensure that engineering careers are strongly demanded and require further elaboration in terms of STEM coaching and related economic contributions.

References

Atkinson, H., & Pennington, M. (2015). Unemployment of engineering graduates: The key issues. Engineering Education, 7(2), 7-15. Web.

Baker, J. (2017). 2018’s software engineering talent shortage – it’s quality, not just quantity. Web.

Barth, E., Davis, J.C., Freeman, R.B., & Wang, A.J. (2017). The effects of scientists and engineers on productivity and earnings at the establishment where they work. Web.

Hansen, W.L. (1961). The “Shortage” of engineers. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 43(3), 251-256. Web.

National Science Foundation (2015). Revisiting the STEM workforce: A companion to science and engineering indicators 2014. Web.

Patro, C.S., & Lohit, B. (2014). Impact of unemployment on engineering graThe ‘Shortage’ of Engineersuates in recession. IOSR Journal of Business and Management, 16(2), 1-6. Web.

Stiwne, E.E., & Jungert, T. (2010). Engineering students’ experiences of transition from study to work. Journal of Education and Work, 23(5), 417-437. Web.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020). Labor productivity and costs. Web.

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ChalkyPapers. "Future Career Demand for Engineers: Shortage or Surplus." October 10, 2023. https://chalkypapers.com/future-career-demand-for-engineers-shortage-or-surplus/.