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America is running out of engineers – here’s how we start recruiting more

May 10, 2019

By Russell Saputo

How do we get more students interested in engineering? Consider showing and telling local high school kids how you did it.

As we look forward to Infrastructure Week, it’s impossible to ignore the continued deterioration of our national infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 9.1% of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2016. Somewhat alarming, on average there were 188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day. It is also estimated that one out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, and our roads have an increasing backlog of repair and maintenance needs.

With the need to build infrastructure reaching a breaking point, the number of sciences, technology, engineering, and math graduates (STEM) is not keeping up with rate of retirement in the industry. It is estimated that 20% of current engineers are over 55 years of age and headed for retirement.

As engineers, our interest—and our responsibility—is to make our communities better, safer, more prosperous places to live. And as the current generation of builders and designers, it’s up to us to set up the next generation for success.

The shortage of qualified engineers will only get worse unless we encourage and support the next generation from an early age. The U.S. Department of Education reveals that only 16% of American high school seniors have an interest in STEM and an aptitude for math. And out of the students who end up majoring in STEM-related areas, only about half choose careers in these fields.

This seems counterintuitive, given the modern teenager’s relationship with technology. Engineering is becoming more technology-driven than ever, with 3D computer-aided design, Virtual Reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Autonomous Vehicles, Smart Cities, and more. So, how can we build interest in tech-savvy Generation Z (kids born after 1995) to become the up-and-coming engineers of tomorrow?

The route 46 and route 3 improvements in Passaic County is one of the largest infrastructure improvements underway in New Jersey, and will help address traffic and congestion in the community.

Make it personal

I would argue that making a personal connection to engineering is the right place to start.

I recently tested this theory by presenting my story to a group of local high school students during a “Principals of Engineering Class” to help familiarize them with the myriad duties of a civil engineer. A friend of mine, who happens to be the Principal of my town’s regional high school, asked me if I would be willing to speak to students in the hopes that I could rouse their interest in the profession, which he admitted was a difficult undertaking.

What better way to encourage high school students to consider a career in engineering than to make the profession more real and personal? Few high school students are fully familiar with the diversity of engineering, so I began my presentation by explaining its many facets—from planning developments to designing infrastructure like new roads and bridges, to urban places, stormwater management, and using cutting-edge technology to solve real-world problems.

Build local connections

I then described one of Stantec’s local highway construction projects that the students were familiar with and I have been a part of.

You would be surprised to see how much educators want—and need—the private sector to be a part of the learning experience for students.

Our Route 46 and Route 3 assignment in Passaic County constitutes one of the largest infrastructure improvement projects within New Jersey. It involves operational and safety enhancements along two miles of highway that will alleviate the heavy traffic congestion and the accidents that occur almost daily. I briefly explained the design process, from planning the needed improvements—including the reconfiguration of two interchanges and ramps, five new bridges, two modern roundabouts, and a new local roadway—to preparing for the project’s construction, which is currently underway.

The most important part of my time with the students centered around explaining why I enjoy what I do, and how rewarding it is to see something built that people use in their everyday lives when you’ve personally contributed to its design. For kids in the class, once those lines on a map were connected to life in the community, it’s like a light went on.

Be an ambassador

After the presentation, one of my son’s best friends who knows me well and was in the class thanked me for taking the time to speak. I have a feeling that by telling my story and explaining my path to becoming a civil engineer (which began in high school and continued through college, an internship, and my time as a junior designer, project manager, and senior manager) I was able to make a difference in the way he now views the engineering profession.

Getting students interested early is key when the opportunity to excel in math and science still exists. It’s going to take some work to reverse the current trends, as it seems interest in STEM is declining. A survey from EY found that from 2017 to 2018, teenage boys interested in a STEM career dropped from 36% to 24%. Low interest among girls remained unchanged at 11%.

Engineers looking to bring awareness to the much-needed cause of inspiring future generations should consider taking the route I did. All you have to do is contact your local high school’s Principal or Math/Physics Department heads and offer to come in and speak. You would be surprised to see how much educators want—and need—the private sector to be a part of the learning experience for students. Preparing for the presentation also took very little time as it was my personal story and the materials I shared were already available.

One takeaway that I didn’t anticipate was how rewarding it felt to offer my experience to a group of kids. In addition to helping guide high school students toward a prestigious and in-demand profession, I was also giving back to the community by telling my story.

We shouldn’t short-sell what’s at stake here—we’re talking about the future of the engineering profession. The next generation has a critical role to play in solving our nation’s infrastructure challenges. Getting them on board starts with education, and it starts with us.

  • Russell Saputo

    Specializing in complex, large-scale highway and interchange improvement projects, Russell has been heavily involved in New Jersey transportation design for over 30 years.

    Contact Russell
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