The perfect (talent) storm

Fewer young people, along with an aging demographic, has resulted in an increased demand for quality people in the engineering sector, and an increasing inability to rely on a foreign-trained workforce.

By Anthony L. Donaldson, Dean of Engineering, Cal Baptist University

Anthony DonaldsonA fellow sitting in my office a couple of years ago heard I was directing an engineering program and decided to stop by and talk about a challenge he faced. He had 50 mostly new EE openings in his division and didn’t know where he could find the candidates to fill them.

He was from Southern California and 90% of the graduates from his alma mater (one of the top producers of BS EEs in the country) couldn’t get security clearance for the type of work his company did. I empathized and suggested he start investing in the “farm teams,” especially ones in his area. Little did I realize that in two years I would be moving nearby to start a new school of engineering.

The signs have been here for several years now. Fewer young people enter engineering, and we have an aging demographic. One major aerospace company reported a couple of years ago that 40-50% of its knowledge workers likely would be retiring in the next three years. That’s just one of several industries feeling these effects. More recently these issues have been amplified by an increasing demand for quality people in the engineering sector, and an increasing inability to rely on a foreign-trained workforce.

I remember an article in a Seattle business journal last year noting that Indians are returning home in large numbers because unprecedented economic opportunities now await them. The result will be increasing demand for technical workers. All this has the makings of a perfect storm, and one not likely to blow over quickly.

Because I’m an engineer and not an alarmist, I tend to see this challenge as an opportunity for a solution that as an educator I can be passionate about.

I’m not interested in solutions that merely move the problem from one part of the country to another (i.e. if we do our job well, we’ll keep more bright young minds in our area), although that’s a cause for interest by local companies.

So, what can be done both in the short and long term to permanently reverse the trend of young people opting out of  careers in the sciences and engineering?

My father was a senior vice president of a large non-profit research institute when he retired. I remember with pride how he’d say he was a salesman. When he trained his technical staff to “sell” their capabilities, he told them there were three key words to remember in sales: “listen,” “listen” and “listen.”

I’d like to hear what you have to say on this matter. For now, here are some things I’ve heard in the midst of the rising storm.

When I recruit or meet with families and interested engineering companies, I ask: what do the following have in common? Doctor, lawyer, K-12 teacher, university professor, military officer, business entrepreneur, salesperson, missionary, and pastor. I have quite a collection of answers. One physics student said they were all carbon-based systems. Others said they all require an education, or they all work with people. The list goes on.

A couple of years ago, a sharp research professor from Texas A&M was visiting and remarked that we—as a profession—do a terrible job recruiting young people into engineering. We tell them they ought to become engineers (they don’t really know what that means) when we should be telling them that an engineering degree offers training for the broadest number of outcomes in life.

I made a list of what our small, liberal arts school graduates had done with their accredited EE degree in the six years I had been director. Between 20-25% were working the jobs on the above list. Was it a result of poor career counseling? No. About a month later an article in the American Society for Engineering Education’s ASEE Prism described what a school that produces 1,300 engineers a year had observed in its alumni 20 years out. With the exception of missionary and pastor, which you might expect from a Christian school, about 20% of its graduates yielded the same list, and more importantly they pointed to their engineering training as being essential to their success in these diverse fields.

What is it about quality engineering training that prepares one broadly for life? What should be included in an engineering school starting from scratch?

Give me some feedback about this. I have an opportunity to prepare another column on the subject, and I’ll be pleased to include your thoughts.

  About the Author
Anthony L. Donaldson is founding dean of the new school of engineering at Cal Baptist University in Riverside, Calif. The school starts classes this fall offering degrees in Civil, EE, ME and general engineering. You can reach him at