By 2024, the U.S. alone could be facing a shortfall of more than 6 million engineers, according to some published reports. The reasons behind the deficit vary, but New Jersey educators are trying to plug the gap.
“There has been a shortfall of engineering students for some time, but recent events have made it even more of a forefront concern,” said Rutgers University School of Engineering interim Dean Alberto Cuitiño. “In particular, there is the move to re-shore manufacturing back to the U.S. [following COVID-related supply chain disruptions], and the redevelopment of the nation’s infrastructure [such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in 2021]. As a community, we are simply not graduating enough engineers to meet the demand.”
Engineering is a “wonderful, high-impact career that pays well and provides a rewarding experience,” he added. “But engineering is a demanding course of study.”
To bring more people into the field, Cuitiño thinks educators must start early. “We have to bring excitement in the K-to-12 grades, because that’s when young men and women begin making their career decisions.”
The School of Engineering is currently partnering with a middle school in Rahway under the Rutgers University Changing a New Generation of Engineers program. According to an SoE announcement, it’s “dedicated to empowering rising 7th and 8th grade Black male students – the next generation of technology innovators – to discover engineering by giving them access to workshops, educational resources, and community.”
Other Rutgers SoE engineering education programs and initiatives geared to pre-college students include TARGET (The Academy at Rutgers for Girls in Engineering and Technology), a summer program designed for middle school and high school students; the New Jersey Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology, a residential summer program that brings together high school students; and an annual research fair for high school students, held at Rutgers University, called the Northern NJ Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.
Amid the rising demand for students and the shrinking supply, institutions like the New Jersey Institute of Technology are also beefing up their outreach efforts. “In a 2018 survey conducted by Pew Research, half of Americans believed the main reason young people don’t pursue STEM is they think these subjects are too hard,” NJIT President Teik Lim said. “Couple this perception with a much-increased growth in the need for STEM professionals, and that causes a shortage. There could be many other reasons why this perception exists, but what is clear is the growing demand.”
By 2031, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 11% growth in science, technology, engineering and math occupations compared to only a 5% growth in non-STEM jobs, he added. “Industry and academia need to present the full scope of opportunity for STEM professionals, and this is what we at NJIT are working hard to do.”
The educational institution has “comprehensive pre-college engineering programs that start as early as 7th grade,” Lim added. “Showing what a STEM education can provide this early helps set foundational interest in pursuing an education and, ultimately, a profession in a STEM field. NJIT also partners with statewide organizations, like the New Jersey Science Olympiad.”
This effort, along with initiatives like NJIT’s Makerspace, “give students an opportunity to see the impressive resources available to future engineering students,” he added.
Makerspace – a designated space offering access to an array of state-of-the-art equipment for design, prototyping, testing and research – along with many of NJIT’s other facilities are immediately available to undergraduates, Lim explained. “Students have the opportunity to conduct applied research, and providing these facilities early on in their academic careers helps students find and develop their future pursuits. We also need to assure that the students we recruit succeed in engineering and the other STEM disciplines. Our Newark Math Success Initiative, our Forensic Science Initiative, as well as our Upward Bound and Educational Opportunity Programs play a critical role in both attracting students and providing them with the foundation for success.”
NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering also partners with the institution’s Center for Pre-College Programs to offer STEM competitions for elementary school students, he said. “This involves undergraduates in our STEMentors Club, and they help prepare elementary school students for the event. Our first competition, in 2021, attracted 75 third- to fifth-graders from more than 10 school districts.”
An official at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken also believes that solutions involve reaching students at a young age.
“I think the shortage of engineers is a supply-demand issue,” said Frank Fischer, associate dean for undergraduate studies in Stevens’ Schools of Engineering and Science. “While the supply of engineers graduating from four-year colleges and entering the workforce has remained relatively constant, there is an increasing demand for engineers resulting from the increasing prevalence of technologies in all walks of life. I think that this has been building for a while but the demand is now increasing at a faster rate than before. Some graduating engineers also find that upon graduation they may have attractive career options in areas outside of traditional engineering fields such as finance and consulting.”
He pointed out that “It is much, much too late to start trying to attract students to engineering once they are in college. The pipeline needs to start early in the K-12 education system – the earlier the better – to get students excited about STEM fields in general and engineering in particular.”
Activities that expose students to STEM and engineering should not be confined to the classroom, he added. “They don’t need to be restricted for formal educational settings,” Fischer urged, “but could include extracurricular activities, after school programs, and programming that may be offered by local museums and libraries.”
Promoting the field of engineering to younger students is important, he added. “It is a great field to be in with exciting and rewarding career opportunities.”
Stevens has several programs designed to introduce and promote engineering to K-12 students, “and we are particularly interested in opportunities to increase the number of women and minorities into engineering,” he added. “One great example is the Art Harper Saturday Academy. We have also had programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation which, for example, supported doctoral students going into high school classrooms.”
New Jersey does “pretty well compared with other states in trying to support a K-12 pipeline for engineering students,” Fischer observed. “But these sort of efforts need to be expanded such that exposure to engineering becomes the norm for the majority of K-12 students.”
The New Jersey Institute of Technology is focusing on minority recruitment, according to NJIT President Teik Lim. “One statistic I’m particularly proud of is that 62% of the Black and Hispanic engineers produced by New Jersey’s public universities are graduates of NJIT,” he noted. “We are New Jersey’s only public polytechnic university, and we are a top 20 producer of Black and Hispanic engineers nationally. And we are very intentional about our efforts to recruit diverse and underrepresented students into STEM programs at NJIT. This past fall, the incoming first-year class set several milestones: underrepresented minorities accounted for a record 42% of students; Black and Hispanic students have more than doubled since 2012; and this, the largest ever first-year class, has a record percentage of female students at 31%.”
Lim is proud of the initiatives, but noted that providing a STEM education involves additional costs — and he’d like to see government funding pick up part of the tab. “Studies by the Center for STEM Education and Innovation as well as the National Bureau of Economic Research have documented the higher costs associated with providing STEM programs,” he said, “particularly those in the disciplines of engineering, architecture, computing and the physical and biological sciences.”
According to Lim, the NBER study found that, “in comparison to degree programs such as English, history, psychology and economics, the costs of offering engineering programs are more than twice as high. The Center for STEM Education and Innovation determined that engineering programs are more than 60% costlier to deliver than the average degree program. Government funding, like the recently announced $1.3 million for engineering and manufacturing initiatives at NJIT, is crucial to further develop and increase the state’s engineering workforce.