As Engineers Retire, Will Skilled Talent Be There?
Employers, Educators Continue Partnerships To Address ‘Skills Shortage’
By Sean Belk - Staff Writer
July 31, 2012 - Long Beach-based SCS Engineers received hundreds of applications for about 25 positions so far this year, said Brant Carnwath, national recruiting director for the solid waste, landfill and environmental services firm. Today, the company has no problem finding qualified engineers looking for work in the construction industry that has shifted to more sustainable, green projects.
But Carnwath said the question is whether there will be enough skilled talent down the road, when more senior-level engineers leave the field for retirement in coming years.
“With the number of baby boomers retiring over the next five to 10 years . . . the big fear is that . . . there are not enough individuals coming into the workforce to replace everybody, especially in the engineering fields,” he said.
The dilemma of a shortage of skilled engineers has become a prime topic of discussion across the country. The present-day labor market for most United States-born engineering graduates remains relatively competitive in a time of high unemployment after large manufacturers and firms have consolidated operations during the recession. Many engineers also have to compete with highly qualified candidates in China and India.
But recruiters indicate that demand for engineers and a more technically inclined workforce in the U.S. is only expected to grow.
“Many engineers who came to the field back in the 1960s and ’70s are retiring. So, to have [enough] engineers on staff, companies need to hire very, very rapidly . . . We feel the demand on us, and the pressure, to produce more qualified engineers,” said Dr. Forouzan Golshani, dean of the College of Engineering at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB).
On a national level, some reports show that some companies are already experiencing a “skills mismatch” between employers’ needs and the qualifications of current applicants. A “Talent Shortage Survey” by Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup that looked at 1,300 employers in the United States reports that 49 percent of the employers surveyed said they are experiencing difficulty filling “mission-critical” positions within their organizations.
The report also states that engineering is the second hardest job to fill this year, below skilled trades and above information technology staff. Some companies, however, have chosen to either “upskill” existing employees or offshore jobs abroad at lower cost rather than hire new graduates with higher learning curves in the United States, according to ManpowerGroup.
The threat of a skilled talent shortage, however, is nothing new. For years, school districts, community colleges and universities have been partnering with major employers to provide scholarships and internships to boost recruitment and skills training in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum – considered critical components of private-sector innovation and key to a country’s economic vitality.
Golshani said, however, some countries may be ahead of the U.S. in terms of producing engineering graduates. He said “China produces more than 10 times the number of engineers that are produced in the United States.” But still, data shows that could be changing.
According to recently released results from a survey conducted by the National Science Foundation, enrollment in science, engineering and health graduate programs in the United States has increased about 30 percent from 2000 to 2010. Locally, CSULB’s college of engineering has seen a 28 percent annual increase in graduating engineers since 2007, according to Golshani. In addition, he said student enrollment for engineering degrees has jumped from 800 students to about 4,000 students during the same timeframe.
Each year, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) convenes to come up with a list of “grand challenges” that the United States and the rest of the world face during the world’s next few generations in the 21st Century. These challenges provide opportunities for engineering disciplines. This year, NAE identified 14 challenges, including anything from making solar energy economical to engineering better medicines to making cyberspace more secure.
Employment in some engineering disciplines, however, is expected to grow faster than others. For instance, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), petroleum engineers, who design and develop methods for extracting oil and gas, and earn the highest median pay of any engineering field, are expected to grow at a rate of 17 percent until 2020.
But in California, there are hardly any universities that teach the curriculum, said Devon Shay, the director of the reservoir management team for Signal Hill Petroleum, which recently had to hire petroleum engineers from out of state. Most of the graduate programs in petroleum engineering are in Texas and Oklahoma, Shay said.
Possibly the fastest growing engineering field, however, according to the BLS, is biomedical engineering, which involves researching and analyzing solutions to problems in biology and medicine with goals to improve quality and effectiveness of patient care. Healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente, for example, is currently hiring biomedical engineers with four-year degrees in addition to clinical technologists with two-year degrees.
Michael Pucci, spokesperson for Kaiser, said in a statement that the roles have become critical for the nation’s health care industry to function properly. “Biomedical engineers and clinical technologists at Kaiser Permanente play a critical role in our ability to provide safe, high quality care and service to our members,” he said. “These highly dedicated professionals ensure that our equipment operates accurately, safely and reliably.”
Meanwhile, the nation’s manufacturing industry, which also requires engineers for research and development and designing products and systems, has been in steady decline. According to the D.C.-based Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the U.S. lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs, almost 5.5 million jobs, from January 2000 to January 2010, indicating a “structural decline” of manufacturing in America.
ITIF President Robert Atkinson said many job opportunities are being shifted to countries where research and development can be done for less money than in the United States. In addition to policy changes on the federal level, he stressed the need to “pressure colleges to do a better job of recruiting or retaining” highly skilled math and science graduates across the nation.
Some manufacturers, however, are looking to bring more skilled jobs back to the U.S. In a recent interview, Boston Consulting Group Managing Director Hal Sirkin stated that rising labor costs in China and other countries are expected to “re-shore” 2 million to 3 million manufacturing jobs to the United States over the next decade.
For instance, Chicago-based Navistar International Corporation, the parent company of PurePower Technologies, LLC, which builds heavy-duty diesel engines and trucks, has added about 800 engineers to its workforce since 2011. The company, which consolidated operations in recent years, is now looking for “systems engineers,” with skills in multiple engineering fields, said John Cagney, Navistar’s vice president of advanced technology and engineering. “We need engineers who are able to dance among multiple disciplines,” he said.
Cagney added that, while the company employs engineers in some foreign countries, including China, for the most part, the firm’s strategy is to keep engineers working where products are made and suppliers are based. “The real motivation is to do regional engineering, to customize, and even manage the local supply base that may be supporting local in-country content,” he said.
Mark Tomlinson, executive director and CEO of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), which is holding its Composites Manufacturing 2013 conference and exposition in Long Beach next March, said there should be more awareness on a national scale of the need for training to help companies fill certain skill gaps in the United States.
Even as high unemployment persists, national studies indicate that American manufacturing companies can’t fill as many as 600,000 skilled positions, he said. By 2020, there is expected to be a need for millions more skilled workers, Tomlinson said. He added that many manufacturers are shifting to use more “automation” devices in assembly lines that require highly skilled technical experts.
Seen as a way to help bridge the skills gap, SME launched a pilot program this year to partner with the U.S. Army to expand certification opportunities to validate existing military personnel skills in highly specialized and technical engineering fields for civilian manufacturing jobs.
“There are technical positions in all aspects of the process going unfilled due to a lack of core competences,” Tomlinson said. “There’s a need for post-secondary training from a one-year certificate program all the way to a six-year degree . . . There’s a need for training to be aligned with the skills gaps . . . And it’s going to come in many different ways.”
The beleaguered aerospace industry in Southern California has seen the shutting down of NASA’s space program, while aircraft manufacturing companies such as Boeing have consolidated operations due to military budget cuts. But Golshani said engineers in the field should still be in high demand as other programs continue to thrive.
“If an assembly line for an airplane is closed, obviously there is a loss to the regional economy, but engineers are usually reassigned to do other things in the company,” he said. “From that perspective, the demand for engineers continues to be strong in Southern California.”
As of March, the BLS shows that employment of aerospace engineers is expected to grow at a rate of 5 percent from 2010 to 2020. In addition, some aerospace engineers work on projects that are related to national defense that require security clearances, which keeps jobs in the United States.
Despite aerospace and global security systems provider Northrop Grumman Corporation moving its headquarters from California to Washington, D.C., engineers are still very much in demand in the local region, said Tom Henson, the company’s spokesperson.
He said the key areas of demand for engineers are: systems integration; test and evaluation; software; electronics and payloads; and systems. In addition, he said engineers are needed for growing programs in building unmanned systems, such as drones. “Northrop Grumman is the industry leader in autonomous controlled unmanned air systems,” Henson said.
Northrop Grumman’s hiring focus is primarily in avionics-system design, flight test, low-observable design and software design and development. But, Henson said, in general, “We need multi-discipline engineers who can address multiple facets of a system design.” He added, “As we begin to realize the impact of engineering retirement, it’s critical that we have a strong pipeline for new talent,” placing emphasis on STEM training at the middle school level and even earlier.
Boeing, which also invests heavily in external education and scholarship programs, including CSULB, currently employs 20,308 people throughout California, said Brittany Kuhn, spokesperson for the company, in a statement.
While the aerospace company has downsized operations over the past two decades, she said the company’s satellite business in Los Angeles County and commercial aircraft programs continue to do well. “Boeing continues to hire in locations where there are critical shortages to manage attrition, support commercial airplane rate increases and maintain a pipeline of diverse and new-hire talent,” Kuhn said.
She added that Boeing supports such initiatives as mentor-based robotics programs, non-profit partnerships and workshops to increase interest and skills. “By managing and developing our current workforce and strategically planning for the skills needed in the future, we will be well positioned to continue our role as a leading and innovative aerospace and technology company,” Kuhn said.
AG Sea Launch, a provider of heavy-lift launch services, still operates programs and commander vessels at the company’s facility in the Port of Long Beach after Russian firm Energia Overseas Ltd. bought out the original firm in 2010 from bankruptcy. Peter Stier, a spokesperson for the company, said it has had two rocket launches since the financial restructuring, with an upcoming launch in mid-August.
Sea Launch now employs close to 50 engineers in Long Beach, including some subcontractors for Boeing, working in “chief engineering functions, mission assurance functions, launch operations and payload integration activities.” However, he said the company doesn’t plan to hire any new engineers in the near term.
John Garvey is president and CEO of Garvey Aircraft Corporation, a small Long Beach-based rocket maker that develops launch vehicles, partnering with CSULB’s Aerospace Systems Integration Lab for mentoring students and carrying out NASA contracts. He said a few companies, such as Hawthorne-based SpaceX, have helped instill more interest in the depleted spacecraft production industry.
But Garvey said “hands on” hardware experience on fast-paced R&D projects with real objectives is critical to develop the next generation engineers rather than “routine lab demonstrations.” He said the U.S. Air Force, NASA and other Department of Defense organizations feel the same way.
“As we reduce development programs, particularly here in Southern California, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to get hands-on experience, which is critical to developing the next generation projects,” he said. “If you cut down on the number of programs, that’s just going to make it worse, when we want to try to rebound and pick it up again . . . It’s going to be awfully hard to bring the industry back if we don’t have the programs for the senior people to transfer their knowledge to the young people.”
Engineering remains one of the fastest growing areas in the construction industry and are some of the most vital positions to fill, mostly related to design and planning. Major infrastructure, commercial and residential projects have recently spurred the need for civil, mechanical, electrical, structural and energy engineers across the United States.
Long Beach-based Moffatt & Nichol, a global civil and coastal engineering firm with contracts ranging from the Port of Long Beach’s Middle Harbor project to beach replenishment in San Diego, has maintained strong relationships and scholarship programs with local universities for bringing in new talent, said Sherry Hennes, the company’s global director of human resources.
She said the company, which employs 372 engineers worldwide, hasn’t experienced any troubles filling civil and mechanical engineering positions and doesn’t expect to in the future. In fact, Hennes said the outlook for such skilled workers might be even more hopeful than some think, since many students have decided to continue their college careers, earning advanced master’s degrees and Ph.Ds., as the labor market became swamped during the recession.
“I think that we have more candidates available than we have ever had in the past at the college level,” she said. “I’m confident that our schools are turning out fantastic engineers, allowing us to hire talented people who are training beside individuals looking at retiring.”
Kent Peterson, vice president of P2S Engineering, said the Long Beach company, which has 85 employees, is currently hiring both mechanical and electrical engineers to work on projects such as designing “shore power” electrical capabilities for vessels to plug in at the Port of Long Beach. He said the demand for more engineers should continue to grow. “We have a phenomenon occurring in the United States, which is that we have the baby boomers retiring and there are not enough new engineers coming out of schools to replace those people,” he said.
Peterson said he works proactively with CSULB’s college of engineering to provide internships and advise college graduates on the needs of the industry. “I offer a lot of input on what we’re looking for in terms skill sets,” he said. “We work with both high schools and colleges to get people working for the summer and understanding what it means to be an engineer.”
Garry Myers is principal of MHP Structural Engineers, which analyzes and designs structures that support or resist loads, mostly in construction and specializing in seismically upgrading buildings to withstand earthquakes. His company’s goal is to help students receive hands on training and internships in hopes of bringing in the best candidates. The company’s recent projects in Long Beach include construction of buildings at Jordan High School and Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. “The caliber of graduating students is higher than it ever has been,” he said.
In the local region, schools, universities and employers are looking to continue building pathways and partnerships for students to enter such critical and highly skilled fields. The Long Beach College Promise initiative, for instance, which started in 2008, provides Long Beach Unified School District students who maintain adequate grades and show progression “a free semester of tuition at Long Beach City College, guaranteed admission to CSULB, early outreach and intensive support.”
Marty Alvarado, director of institutional resource development at LBCC, said the initiative looks at ways to better prepare grade school students for college by helping them to become proficient in higher levels of math curriculum and focusing on students’ overall grades rather than standardized test scores, while partnering with the local community and industry.
“We’re really looking at how to support STEM in a more intentional way and what we realized is that we can’t jump off that bridge until we’ve addressed getting the students math proficient,” she said. Since the initiative began, the number of high school students moving directly into college level math upon graduation from K-12 has increased 350 percent, according to Alvarado “This goes a long way toward addressing some of our math challenges,”
California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), although doesn’t have an engineering degree program, continues to offer pre-engineering courses and also partners with LBCC through a “Pathways to Success” initiative, which guarantees LBCC students who successfully complete the required courses for transfer will be admitted to CSUDH.
“CSU Dominguez Hills graduates more math and science teachers than any other school in the CSU system,” said Greg Saks, vice president for university advancement at CSUDH. “So we’re very focused on making sure we’re helping not only at the university level, but at the K-12 level as well. We are preparing people with an interest in going into these fields that we all know are going to have great demand.”
Dr. Gregory Washington, dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at University of California, Irvine, which has seen a 33 percent increase in engineering graduate enrollment, said many large engineering firms continue to face challenges in filling skilled positions as senior-level engineers begin to retire in coming years. He added, however, that some data indicates the skills shortages may not be that bad, as many baby boomers are now working well past retirement age because of advancements in healthcare and many companies have been able to source international talent.
But Washington stressed that as education budgets continue to be slashed in California, the issue of building a new generation of highly skilled engineers through more emphasis in STEM curriculum at grade schools and showcasing what careers are out there is more important than ever. “California produces more engineers than any state in the country . . . and if engineering as a discipline is going to produce what it needs, California needs to produce support for higher education,” he said. “We have to get a handle on this.”
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