America Needs More Engineers


Techies are often advised to brush up on their broader business skills, such as project management. Yet in at least some fields, too many folks following this advice may have contributed to shortages of people with the right kinds of skills.


According to an MLive.com story, U.S. automakers and their suppliers are having trouble finding enough qualified engineers to help meet the growing demand for hybrids and other vehicles with fuel-efficient technologies.


The U.S. "is not producing the right skill sets," says Mary Ann Wright, CEO of Johnson Controls-Saft and VP and general manager of Johnson Controls Inc.'s hybrid systems group. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting a shortage of 160,000 engineers by 2016. If anything, that figure is likely to be optimistic as it doesn't take into account the number of engineers expected to retire. Wright, for one, expects the shortage to be worse.


John Fuhs, head of commercial engineering, sales and advanced purchasing for a U.S. division of German auto supplier Swoboda, has two recruiters looking for American-born engineers and says he will "find a way to hire one in this tight environment." He faults U.S. universities' shift away from technical skills in favor of a broader business background for the shortfall of engineers. Says Fuhs:

They made a very big point of switching 25 years ago for more rounded engineers, and that's what we got. They all want to be project managers now, but they don't know the science or what's going on to get the job done.

Daryl Weinert, senior director of corporate and government relations for the University of Michigan's College of Engineering, says the problem is a lack of interest among young people and the perception that there aren't jobs in automotive engineering. The university and other schools are tweaking their curricula to reflect interest in electronic vehicles, says Weinert, but it will take time to develop new courses.


The problem goes beyond the automotive industry. Says Weinert:

There just aren't enough engineers period in North America.

There also appears to be a shortage of technicians and other employees trained to operate the sophisticated, automated systems that are becoming more common in manufacturing, as I wrote earlier this month.


The U.S. isn't the only country dealing with an engineering drought. Japan is recruiting foreign workers and establishing R&D centers in countries like Vietnam and China to deal with its shortage.