The Wall Street Journal

June 7, 2002


CEOs Worry About the Future
Of New Generation of Engineers

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To a growing number of worried CEOs, Kristen Vogt is one who got away. A standout engineering student at Notre Dame University in the U.S., she realized in her sophomore year that she wasn't learning a thing about "what it means to be an engineer," she recalls, or how becoming an engineer "would let me contribute to society in a meaningful way."

So she said goodbye to her high-school dream of being a mechanical engineer and instead graduated with a bachelor's degree in math. Today, she is pursuing a doctorate in education.

Those same CEOs have their fingers crossed about Erin Veltman. In her second year at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Ms. Veltman says she "always liked seeing how things worked," so she's majoring in engineering.

Virginia Tech has worked hard to get actual engineering classes into the first two years of that curriculum, which traditionally has been packed to the rafters with math, physics, chemistry and other basics that don't give students even a taste of their chosen field. "The idea is to not just throw them in and say, come back in two years to see what engineering is all about," says Paul Torgersen, president of Virginia Tech from 1993 to 2000.

Ms. Veltman disliked the science-heavy first-year courses so much that she went to the associate dean of engineering to ask what the heck engineers actually do. But "with the engineering sequence," she says, "I got a feel for design and learned programming code" -- and she is sticking with engineering. So far.

As engineers and technology companies see it, this tale of two students presents two possible futures: whether or not they'll be able to reverse a 17-year slide in the number of engineering grads and save themselves from falling off a demographic cliff. Engineering bachelor's degrees peaked in 1985 at 77,572, and plunged to 60,914 in 1998. As a result, says Daniel Sullivan, a vice president at Qualcomm, "There is a critical shortage of certain types of scientists and engineers," including experts in computer-aided design, the integrated-circuit design called VLSI, and radio-frequency specialists needed for the digital wireless research and development.

Why? One reason, says William Ballhaus, president of the Aerospace Corp., is that "the generation of engineers who went into aerospace engineering in the 1960s to go to the moon, Mars and beyond, is retiring. You can't have large numbers of people retire and not have others to back them up."

That's true for info-tech, too, says Nicholas Donofrio, a senior vice president at IBM. "The long-term trend suggests there's going to be a problem," he said. For example, NASA has more engineers over 60 than under 30.

Money isn't the problem. From the class of 2002, grads in marketing are starting at an average salary of $35,374 (€37,648) and business majors at $35,209, while mechanical engineers pull in $48,654 and chemical engineers $51,254. But to Ms. Veltman, the appeal of a fat salary goes only so far.

"It's more important to find something you like, that you'll be able to do well and enjoy," she says. Tillie Fowler, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for eight years and now serves on the congressionally mandated Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, agrees. "Aerospace engineering, for instance, is not perceived as exciting, or as offering an encouraging environment," she says.

The stereotype that women don't enter engineering unfortunately appears to be holding true. Engineering degrees made up 2.2% of the bachelor's degrees women earned in 1985 and only 1.7% of those in 1998. Part of the problem is that women, at least those entering the field in the 1960s, were turned off by the little support they received from university faculty and the relatively solitary work that defined engineering.

The problem now may be more one of curriculum -- the reforming of which is an uphill struggle. "There's a sense among engineers that we suffered through this, so you should, too," said G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Innovative programs exist -- U.S. universities M.I.T., Tufts, Drexel, Virginia Tech and Stanford to name a few -- but by and large "we follow a boot-camp model," said William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering. "We throw really hard math and science at them for two years and only then let them do some fun stuff. No wonder we're losing 40% of the freshman who start in engineering."

The dot-com bust and tech recession have loosened the job market considerably, making it easier for companies to find engineers. "Right now, we're doing fine," says Vance Coffman, chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. "But that doesn't mean we will in the next five to seven years."

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Updated June 7, 2002

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