Replenishing the Ranks

An analysis on cultivating the next generation of engineers.

Rarely can a student be pushed into engineering. The attrition rate of engineering schools is indicative of that. For an individual to be successful in engineering, he or she must be inspired. It is that inspiration that enables engineering students to dredge through the rigors of engineering school. It is that inspiration that keeps young engineers at the office well into the night as they search for solutions to complex problems. It is that inspiration that allows seasoned engineers to change their communities, their industries, and the world. But where does this inspiration come from?

Every generation of engineers has found their inspiration from a combination of the works of the generations before them and world events. At the turn of the century, mankind was introduced to new technologies ranging from electricity to the automobile to manned flight. Each of these technologies was created to meet the needs of a society transitioning to the modern world. These scientific and engineering marvels, paired with two world wars, provided inspiration and motivation for the next generation of engineers to pioneer Hoover Dam, mobile infantry, and naval aviation. Inspiration from these feats, in addition to the political influence of the Cold War, led the next generation of engineers to develop satellites and technologies required for human space flight that ultimately led to human lunar exploration. The list goes on…

Fast forward a few generations and the question becomes: What past engineering accomplishments and what present world events can we tout as the inspiration for the next generation of engineers? This question can be difficult to answer when broadly comparing our situations today with those of the generations listed above. After all, this generation hasn’t been tasked with landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. However, a closer look does provide clear opportunities for inspiring the next generation of engineers.

  1. Limited resources in the midst of growing population and consumption: It’s no secret we live on a planet with finite resources. How could it be? Copious sums of money have been spent on increasing awareness of our finite resources and the need to reduce our consumption. These conditions make the issue of renewable energy a topic of which all students should be aware. Students simply need to be made aware of the opportunities that exist for engineers in the renewable industry. Plant the seed for inspiration and the marketing and advertising campaigns should take care of the rest.
  2. Smart phones and the mobile revolution: Similar to the example above, large sums of money have been spent on informing people of advances in mobile computing technology (smartphones, tablets, etc.). Furthermore, tech companies that create these devices have developed a corporate culture that appeals to the younger generations. Once again, showing students the opportunities that exist for engineers in the tech industry is about all that needs to be done. Let them know they can design the newest, greatest iWhatever, and they very well might.
  3. Austin skyline and local population growth: The Austonian really is a beautiful building. So are a lot of the buildings surrounding it. It’s a good thing too, since these buildings are often a visitor’s first impression of the city (and they’ve also been cited as a reason many people return). Growing the Austin skyline presents an appealing challenge to architects and engineers, and it’s a challenge that will remain for the foreseeable future given the current rate of population growth in central Texas. A building and the opportunity surrounding it can be very inspirational to students, especially in the current job market.

If these examples seem very formulaic, it’s because they are. To inspire the next generation of engineers, key on engineering accomplishments and current events they can relate to, and give them the whole picture. Share with them what opportunities exist in the different engineering fields and show them paths to get there. The problem of a shrinking engineering population falls at the feet of those who’ve already found their inspiration. The engineering community must become more involved in schools, engineering education, and mentoring programs to ensure further generations of engineers emerge to replenish the ranks. ~ Jay Young, E.I.T., LEED AP