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Engineering fields are experiencing massive growth throughout all sectors of the job market, but even with the push of getting more engineers through schools, the US economy is seeing a shortage of qualified workers.
The average salary is roughly $93,000 a year, according to Census.gov, and engineering has the highest average salary for workers when you examine all majors. Potential pay is certainly a driving factor for many who go into engineering, but once students get out of college with an engineering degree, few end up working in their respective fields.
There are many engineering graduates that end up leaving the engineering fields soon after graduation and never come back. So, what is pushing our students away from engineering jobs and into other areas of the market?
The engineering job market
Data gathered by the Washington Post suggests that as many as 75% of those with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees don’t work in their respective fields. This is a mind-blowing number when you consider that there is a lack of workers with technical degrees in the United States. Wages in these fields are up, and companies are constantly seeking qualified individuals. Still, engineering degree holders are steadily getting pulled into other industries and career paths.
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Let’s get to the bottom of what is causing this. Take a look at a graphic provided by the US Census Bureau, below. The colored lines connect majors to career fields and show the number of graduates working in STEM fields, whereas the gray lines depict engineering graduates that are working in non-STEM industries.
The potential of STEM
The most influential factor in this decision could very well be money and allure, rather than a passion for engineering. Many mechanical engineers, for example, are recruited into the degree path with allures of designing cars and other machines. Many of us already know, these jobs are few and far between, whereas the more common job available is something seemingly mundane such as air conditioner design.
There’s nothing wrong with a technical job in this field, and as a country, we need smart individuals pursuing these jobs. Here lies the problem, as an institution, we are getting people interested in what STEM can offer them, rather than STEM itself.
When a student spends four to five years of their life thinking they can become the next car designer, only to end up mindlessly creating machine plans, they will naturally gravitate towards other fields. Rather than trying to attract students to STEAM fields by telling them how much promise careers in these paths have, we should get them interested in the core principles. Principles like math and design or problem-solving and creativity. When we do this, we set expectations accordingly for future STEAM students and future STEAM graduates.
A life of fulfillment through problem-solving and creativity is far more promising than one fulfilled through money.
Let’s look into another aspect of engineering degrees. Engineering degrees have some of the highest dropout and attrition rates compared to any other degree path. This is largely due to the challenging nature of these degree plans that often aren't made entirely clear to new students.
According to research from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 48% of engineering students between the years 2003 and 2009 dropped out before graduation. This high attrition rate can be expected, though. Take a look at the charts below. They demonstrate the percentage of workers in the job force with matching degrees or majors with their jobs or industries in which they work.
Anyone that has been through an engineering education knows that not just anybody can handle the math and the stress. While this “in-school” attrition rate is high comparatively, it only bolsters the magnitude of the “after-graduation” attrition rate. The statistic that 75% of engineers aren’t working in engineering disciplines can be considered the “after-graduation” attrition rate. After students have gone through both of these high-attrition scenarios, the industry is seeing a shortage of engineers.
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So, when looking into the state of the engineering educational system, we see that students are failing to recognize certain engineering jobs as exciting or interesting, thus choosing jobs in other fields. To stop this shortage of engineers, and to keep trained engineers working in engineering, we have to be real about the state of the engineering economy, and interest students in engineering, not the benefits of a career in engineering.
One of the best and most effective ways to get kids interested in engineering is through practical demonstration or engaging media. As kids turn further and further into media consumers in the modern era, meeting them right where they are with engineering education is often the best and easiest way to go. This means engineering-related YouTube videos, Tik Toks, or on a more local front, engineering demonstrations in school. Projects in school like bridges or mouse-trap cars are some of the best ways to engage a student that has never engaged with engineering before.
I myself, for example, as a former student, was not incredibly thrilled about the prospect of doing math and calculations each and every day for engineering. However, what pulled me into the career path was seeing all of the amazing things I could create, being inspired by engineering's capabilities. That said, we still shouldn't push kids into something that isn't their strength just for the sake of it.
I knew I wouldn't be as good at complex math as others, particularly in the physics and dynamics aspects of school. So, I chose the engineering career path that focuses on other aspects of design, more static designs, civil engineering. It could be argued that selecting the proper engineering degree is just as crucial to lowering engineering attrition rates as just setting expectations for the career path is as a whole. At the end of the day, STEM offers a great deal of exciting opportunities for anyone that engages with it.