Leland Teschler, Executive Editor
On Twitter @DW_LeeTeschler
Those who’ve watched the engineering profession over the years might become suspicious when a prominent scientific organization studies employment in the field. The reason for this wariness arises from previous proclamations from the National Science Foundation which has had a reputation for forecasting fake engineering shortages.
One such occasion was in the 1980s. As explained by demographer Michael S. Teitelbaum, NSF claims of an imminent engineering shortage, which never came to pass, were based upon simplistic demographic projections produced by a small NSF policy office. The projections, it turned out, had been sharply criticized by the NSF’s own science and engineering workforce experts.
So it is noteworthy that a new report on the engineering profession, this time from the National Academy of Engineering, found no sign of a shortage. The report covered engineering technologist (ET) jobs and engineering technicians.
For those unware of the ET degree program, it typically resembles an ordinary four-year engineering curriculum but with less higher level math and more application-oriented lab work. The fact that NAE found no shortage of engineering technologists nor a shortage of engineering technicians is doubly interesting in that curriculums for technicians and ET grads are, in fact, more likely to have spot shortages. The reason: Their content tends to be more closely aligned to local industries than that of engineering programs. So they are more likely to be affected by the ups and downs of local economics.
The rationale for NAE examining ET jobs wasn’t to go sniffing around for shortages. Instead, the Academy seemed interested in the area because it didn’t know much about jobs for ETs and technicians. In fact, few people, or engineering companies, seem to have a clue about ET degrees.
There are only about 18,000 four-year degrees in engineering technology awarded in the U.S. annually, compared to about 94,000 four-year engineering degrees. NAE surveyed engineering employers and found that 30% of them had never heard of ET education. And a third of them didn’t know the difference between work done by engineers and work done by engineering technologists.
Says Ron Latanision, NAE report co-chair and corporate vice president of Exponent Failure Analysis Associates, “We were surprised that companies were generally unaware that there are opportunities for people who have an inclination for hands-on work and implementation. ET students I’ve seen are just as determined as the students I used to teach at M.I.T. Their career pathways are just as bright as for people with engineering degrees. And they are paid well.”
When Latanision says ET grads are paid well, he means relative to the pay scale of technicians with two-year degrees. But the NAE report also noted that those graduating with engineering degrees typically earn more than ET grads. Sometimes the same schools graduating ETs also graduate engineers. All in all, there seems to be no difference in the cost of the two types of education. So given that engineers will probably earn more, you might wonder why anyone would go the ET route when it means a lower pay check.
“You have to look beyond the cost of the degree,” says Latanision. “Some young people are just more inclined toward hands-on activities. There are salary differences in the beginning. But as people mature and grow, their skills become apparent to their employers and they advance.”
Still, money talks. If salary levels are an indication, industry seems to think engineering technologists are important, but only to a point. The NAE wants to shine a light on this segment of the industrial workforce. “Technologist-level help is absolutely integral to our manufacturing base,” says Latanision. “The ET career path should be well known and something people aspire to.”
Filed Under: Commentary • expert insight, Design World articles