Getting the last laugh

Once stereotyped as gearheads, engineering graduates are in great demand

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Print this page by Gary Robertson

Engineers sometimes feel stereotyped, pigeonholed and otherwise misconstrued as nerdy gearheads.

But the pendulum is now swinging the other way.  “There’s been a tremendous run-up of interest in engineering,” says Richard C. Benson, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.

He attributes that newfound interest to the fact that engineers now are taking the lead in areas such as space exploration, biomedical research, cyber security and advanced technology, producing culture-changing consumer products such as the iPad and iPhone.

Another reason for engineering’s rise in popularity, he says, is that engineers are doing very well in a tough economy.  For example, the most recent “Best Undergraduate College Degrees by Salary” survey published by is dominated by engineering majors, which occupy seven of the top 10 spots.

“I think this country is going to have an increasing need for engineers,” Benson says. “We’re not going to be economically prosperous by trying to make widgets cheaper than other countries — we are going to lose that battle.

“We’re going to become prosperous by being first with new technologies. That means engineers,” he says.

Indeed, judging by the number of applications to Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, by far the state’s largest engineering school, with an undergraduate enrollment of 6,590, the message is getting through.

When Benson became dean of the school in 2005, it received 4,800 applications for 1,200 slots in the freshman class.

In 2010, the size of the engineering freshman class was increased to 1,300, but the number of applications kept coming in increasingly larger torrents. This year, there were 7,171 applications, a nearly 50 percent increase over seven years.

“We’re turning away students who could do the work,” Benson says, noting that the competition is fierce for admission.

He hopes the school will be able to grow even larger to accommodate qualified Virginia students.

Toward that end, the College of Engineering is constructing a $100 million Signature Engineering Building, thanks to a $25 million anonymous gift — the largest in the college’s history.
Across the commonwealth, engineering schools say it’s a good time to be an engineer, because of the job offers their students are receiving compared with college graduates with other majors.

“I’ve seen a number of students coming in with two or three offers,” says C. J. Livesay, director of the Center for Engineering Career Development at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at the University of Virginia (2,298 undergraduates).

“A lot of parents are driving their children toward engineering and science,” Livesay adds. “Engineering is a great springboard for whatever you want to do.”

Livesay says that in addition to the normal run of industries that recruit engineers, he has been seeing management consulting companies, financial service firms, banks and a wide range of other businesses looking for engineers. “They tell us they want the problem-solving skills that engineering graduates bring to the table,” he says. “They say those same skills can be used to solve business problems.”

The school has an unusually high percentage of undergraduate women engineering students, 30 percent, compared with the national average of about 18 percent.

(In 2009, the percentage of undergraduate engineering degrees earned by women hit a 15-year low nationally, 17.8 percent.)

U.Va. also has an innovative program — Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia — developed in partnership with community colleges.  Under the program, students can earn associate degrees in engineering from local community colleges and then earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering from the University of Virginia.  “And they don’t have to leave their home community,” says James Groves, assistant dean for research and outreach at the U.Va. engineering school.

This year the program celebrated its first eight graduates. “A working hypothesis of this program is that if we can educate students in a community, then we can retain a higher percentage of talent in that community,” Groves says.

Currently, 14 community colleges offer engineering courses in the Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia program, and about 30 third- and fourth-year students are enrolled.

At George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering (2,700 undergraduates), retiring dean Lloyd Griffiths says the demand is so high for engineers that companies — there are 1,600 of them within 15 minutes of campus — and government agencies are recruiting students before they graduate, often putting them on the payroll as interns in their senior year or before.

Griffiths, an electrical engineer, plans to return to the classroom. He already has been teaching classes, and he’s noticed a startling difference in engineering students from a generation ago. “When I was in the classroom, the most frequent questions were: ‘What’s going to be on the midterm? What kind of grade am I going to get?’”

Now, he says, engineering students are demanding to know the relevance of what they are being taught to what is happening in the real world, especially so if they are employed in an internship. “They are all more outcome-oriented,” Griffiths says. “It’s a much more satisfying environment.”

At Old Dominion University’s Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, growth has been the byword, as demand for engineering students has accelerated.

Since 2003, enrollment in the college’s engineering and technology programs has grown by 39 percent overall. Currently, there are 2,375 undergraduate engineering students.

This year, during the school’s 50th anniversary, engineering dean Oktay Baysal says the school will break ground on an $18 million, 50,000-square-foot systems engineering building.

The engineering school has benefitted from its close association with various military installations in the Hampton Roads region. Norfolk, for example, is the home of the largest naval base in the world, and Old Dominion’s marine engineering program has sent a steady stream of engineers to work in Navy programs. “We’ve provided mechanical engineers for ship design and combat systems, and electrical engineers for avionic systems,” Baysal says. Avionic systems are the electronic systems used in aircraft.

In September 2010, the Navy gave ODU a five-year contract worth up to $30 million to provide analytical and technical support services, as well as research and development help, to the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic. The center delivers and maintains advanced information technology capabilities to the fleet.

At Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering (about 1,300 undergraduates), Krys Cios, chair of the Department of Computer Science, reports that engineering graduates with a background in cyber security, data mining and cloud computing are receiving many jobs offers and often sizable signing bonuses.

Meng Yu, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science, noted that government agencies and corporate entities are increasingly wary of cyber attacks on their most sensitive systems, and that’s prompted an all-out search for talent. “Every year, I see a lot of job openings in cyber security,” Yu says.

Although the number of engineering graduates has been growing during the past decade, according to National Center for Education Statistics, the nation is still running behind.
In 2009, for example, the U.S. graduated 84,636 engineers — more than 11 percent fewer than were graduated 25 years earlier.

As Baysal of Old Dominion put it: “All the engineering schools are having difficulty graduating enough [engineers]. There’s been no slacking off in demand,” he says. 

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