AZ Technology & Innovation: Preventing a Shortage of Engineers

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Paul Johnson, the Dean of ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering, says Arizona employers are finding it difficult to find “qualified” engineers, and he explains what ASU is doing to reverse that trend.

Ted Simons: In our continuing coverage of Arizona technology and innovation issues we focus on the people who make those innovations happen. Engineers. The Dean of ASU's engineering school says state employers are having a hard time finding qualified engineers so the school is working on ways to recruit and educate engineering students and keep those graduates in Arizona. I talked about the shortage with Paul Johnson, Dean of ASU's IRA A. Fulton schools of engineering. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Paul Johnson: Thanks for inviting me.

Ted Simons: what kind of shortage are we talking about here?

Paul Johnson: There's a shortage and it's going to get worse. It's been mediated a little bit by the economy, but for a little while we had the demand and supply. What we have in front of us is about 40% of the engineering work force is retirement eligible. Many of those people have sort of held on to their jobs for during the weak economy because they were worried about their retirement accounts. We're starting into a phase where they are going to start retiring and the economy picking up. We're seeing that in all the indicators of the recruitment with our students. For example we have a career fair that we're holding in a couple weeks. We have our own career center, so we get postings and keep track of the number of postings, keep track of the number of companies interested in the career fair. The number of postings is up 50% this year. The number of companies coming to the career fair has steadily increased during the weak economy and now it's really taking off again.

Ted Simons: Is there a certain type of engineer we're talking about? Is it across the board? Is it relatively focused? What kind of engineers are we seeing a shortage of?

Paul Johnson: There's a pretty broad spectrum of engineers and engineering skill sets. At the current time employers will say there's a shortage of people in sort of maybe the two to five year time frame of experience. Some people with early experience. They are looking for a lot of those and are having trouble finding that group of potential employees. They are also in certain areas in engineering. There's more demand than others. For example the three primary areas right now are sort of computer science, computer systems. A lot of it spurred by our iphones, all the Apps, smart phones, I-Pads. Electrical engineering is another area, and mechanical engineering is another area.

Ted Simons: You mentioned the brain drain, folks that have worked on these things, developed these kinds of things. Getting older, moving on. Are there simply not enough young people to come around or are there enough young people but they just don't seem to be qualified, they aren't there yet? What's the dynamic?

Paul Johnson: I think we're in a situation if you look at the numbers, so there's about depending whose numbers you use there's 1.5 million engineers across the country. 40% will retire in the next five years, most in ten. The number of engineers produced each year is not going to match the rate at which they are retiring. In addition you have new fields developing, new companies starting up and it's not just a replacement of the people that retiring but it's every time an engineer inconveniences something new and an industry sprouts up because of that, it's like you need a whole new flavor of engineers to help feed it.

Ted Simons: What kind of plans do you have to recruit more students to retain them, and to keep them in Arizona? Is there something you can do? Are there actually focused plans?

Paul Johnson: There really are. This is actually one of the fun things about being Dean of an engineering school is to get to work on these. It's a topic particularly attracting young students to come to college in engineering. It's a topic that resonates with sort of anybody who has ever been an engineer, people in science fields. They want to help. But the key thing, our strategy right now has been we want to make young potential college students very aware of what engineering is all about. There's stereotypes, you have to be good at math or whatever it is. If you want to create things that don't exist, if you want to work on things that really matter, if you want to be the problem solvers, the innovators, if you want to start companies, look at engineering. Here's examples of all those things. So we try to make that there and then we have our students at ASU actually work in the classrooms with teachers in the K-12 system so they can see the students in high school and below can see what a college student looks like, can see they are enjoying what they are doing, they are having fun. They can tell them about the exciting things we're doing. We go down to fifth grade. We host the first Lego league competition in the United States. When students come to us we have to make sure we keep them. Students go through first Robotics these days, first Lego league, they know competition. They know technology can be exciting. Creating things can be fun. So we have actually had in the last four, five years totally reworked our program at the university so that in the old days and actually most engineering programs are like this, you come into the university an you have to make your way through physics and calculus. Then they talk to you when they are a Junior. The generation these days if you don't excite them with what you're doing, if they don't see engineering early on, they are going to go somewhere else in the university. We have changed our program so we have this engineering from day one philosophy. We bring the students in, they are solving problems, creating things, doing real engineering stuff. Just as freshmen, in the first week.

Ted Simons: well, it will be interesting to see how well that develops an how well we can minimize that particular shortage. Good information. Thank you for joining us.

Paul Johnson: Thank you.

Paul Johnson:Dean, ASU Fulton Schools of Engineering;

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