Industry leaves no stone unturned to meet future engineering needs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for 17,830 additional engineers each year for the next 10 years. That’s about one-eighth of the total number of students awarded an engineering degree in 2011. Experts say that such a shortfall of engineering talent could jeopardize the health of American economy.

Demographics of newly minted engineers are changing but still don’t match those of the U. S. population. Industry leaders say this is a problem. By many measures, Latinos are the fastest growing U. S. population segment. Yet Latino engineering enrollments aren’t nearly enough to make up for a declining white engineering enrollment or the large number of retiring baby-boomer engineers. The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) data shows nearly 60% of engineering graduates in 2011 were non-Latino white. This is a 4% drop from 2010.

Meanwhile, the National Action Center for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) says the Latino population is expected to double and will represent one-third the U. S. population by 2050. ASEE reports only 8.5% of engineering degrees were awarded to Hispanics in 2011. The percentage of Hispanic enrollment in bachelor’s degree engineering programs rose last year, but only went from 7 to 8.5%.

Latinos aren’t the only minority that business leaders would like to see produce more engineers. But for other minorities, the statistics are even worse. ASEE shows the number of African American’s graduating in engineering dropped slightly and only represents 4% of all engineering graduates. There is a chance this percentage could improve, but NACME forecasts no growth in the African American U. S. population through 2050. The same trend holds for American Indians who will continue to represent only 1% of the U. S. population in 2050. Statistics for American-Indian engineers are quite good. NACME says the number of awarded bachelor degrees in engineering to American Indians has more than doubled over the past three decades. But that number is still under 500 graduates annually as of 2009.

On a positive note, the Asian-American population will help fill part of the engineering shortage. Around 15% of U. S. engineering graduates are Asian American. The Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers (SASE) sees steady growth for Asian Americans in engineering and NACME expects the U. S. population of Asian Americans to reach 8% in 2050.

Foreign students constitute another important source of U. S. engineers, though their enrollment has become a political hot button. ASEE notes roughly 7% of students enrolled in a bachelor’s degree of engineering programs are foreign. More importantly, these non-U. S. citizens represent about 40% of all engineering master’s degrees and about 54% of all doctorates in engineering. In previous decades, it was common for many of these students to stay in the U. S. after completing their degree. Today, it is increasingly difficult for them to get U. S. visas, so many return home after graduation. Some think adding foreign engineers to the U. S. workforce depresses engineering salaries, but others say reducing the source of engineering talent is counterproductive.

Female engineers

Women represent half the U. S. population. They also represent more than half of enrolled college students. Yet ASEE data shows women earned only 18.4% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering in Fall 2011. Organizations like the
Society of Women Engineers (SWE) found the percentage of women earning engineering degrees has risen only slightly over the past few years. The million-dollar question is why more women aren’t interested in engineering careers.
A coalition of the country’s engineering associations conducted an interesting study called Extraordinary Women Engineers Project (EWEP) in 2004. They determined that almost equal percentages of high-school girls and boys take math and science classes. The conclusion from this data was that women’s disconnect from engineering happens elsewhere.
EWEP reports the problem is one of perception. Girls negatively stereotype the engineering profession because they don’t know what it is about. Likewise, people like teachers, school counselors, parents, peers, media, and others who influence young girls may not understand engineering careers, either. The result is that engineering doesn’t have a high profile.
EWEP polled young girls to find out what they want in a career. The findings weren’t unlike what any student wants out of a career. Girls said they want their job to be enjoyable, offer a good salary, have a good working environment, be flexible, and provide an ability to make a difference.

A lack of knowledge about engineering disciplines could easily be the problem. SWE and other organizations like the National Academy of Engineering have been working to educate girls about engineering to break the stereotype. They do this by hosting programs such as design contests and camps, providing scholarships, and populating interactive Web sites like engineergirl.com.
A strong push for these outreach programs started just over six years ago. Yet the percentage of females earning a degree in engineering hasn’t improved more than a couple tenths of a percent. In fact, ASEE reported the 2011 percentage of women enrolling in engineering, roughly 18%, matched the percentage of women graduating with the degree. So only about 20% of women enrolled in engineering will graduate with a degree. Advocate organizations now wonder what factors could be stopping women from earning an engineering degree.

Something called a stereotype threat has been studied as a possible culprit. A paper titled “Why So Few” from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) says a stereotype threat can be felt as both psychological and physiological responses that result in impaired performance. The study talks about the testing performance of women and minorities exposed to stereotype threat. The AAUW paper found that over 300 studies published support findings that stereotype threat can be induced simply by asking students to indicate their gender or race before a test or by having a larger gender or ethnicity ratio in a testing room. In experiments, stereotyped individuals reread items more often and worked slower with less accuracy than non-threatened participants. In some cases, threatened students even had higher blood pressure levels.

Findings show women may be losing as many as 20 points on the math portion of the SAT simply because of stereotype threat. AAUW explains that 20 points on a test with a total possible score of 800 may seem small, but in 2008 the average score on the SAT math exam was 30 points higher for males than females. Thus, eliminating stereotype threat could eliminate two-thirds of the gender gap on the SAT math exam.

The study also shows that even high-achieving, motivated women working towards STEM careers are susceptible to stereotype threat. This idea was tested by telling female and male students in a high-level calculus course that an upcoming difficult math test was a diagnosis of their ability. Both genders performed about the same on the test. The threat was later removed by telling students that women and men perform equally well on the test. The women performed significantly better than the men on the test.

Filling the pipeline

Engineering organizations agree students in K-12 who have access to high-quality math and science are better prepared for college. So part of the plan to get more minorities in engineering is to improve their precollege education. This is a difficult task. NACME says fewer than 8% of Latino, African-American, and American-Indian high-school seniors take calculus versus 15% of Non-Latino whites and 30% of Asian-American seniors. Even worse, 20% of Latino males and 14% of
Latino females drop out of high school.

Community colleges are another education source that have an impact on attracting and retaining engineering students. NACME says engineering schools have yet to fully tap the potential pool of community college transfer students.
Christopher M. Mullin, a program director for policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), recently studied the importance of community college. He found that 28% of bachelor’s degree earners started at a community college. Forty-seven percent of students earning a degree took at least one course at a community college. Over the past nine years, students who transferred from a community college to a private or public four-year institution are estimated to have saved $22.5 billion in tuition fees.

NACME sees the direct link from community colleges to minorities in engineering. Fifty-five percent of all Latino undergraduates were at a two-year college in 2008, and there are similar trends in the African-American and American-Indian communities.
It will be interesting to see how organizations and schools plan to change the demographics of engineers over the next few decades. Hopefully the education, outreach, and communication they have already started will kick into gear.

Related links:

National Science Foundation (NSF)

National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)

Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE)

WebCASPAR database

Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN)