Declining Interest in Engineering Studies at

a Time of Increased Business Need


Wayne C. Johnson

Vice President, University Relations Worldwide

Hewlett-Packard Company

Palo Alto , California , USA


  Russel C. Jones

World Expertise LLC

Falls Church , Virginia , USA



The numbers of students studying engineering have declined in recent years, both in the United States and in Western European countries. Many factors have contributed to this decline – including the difficulty of the curriculum, the attractiveness of alternate paths to good technical jobs, and the lack of attractiveness of projected employment paths for engineering graduates. This decline has occurred at a time when the employers of engineers face new challenges due to globalization, offshore outsourcing, and the need to “move up the food chain” in innovation and technical expertise in order to remain competitive – thus creating a demand for more highly qualified engineering graduates. Much of what needs to be done to make engineering more attractive to bright students is well known – but educational institutions, employers of engineers, and government policy makers have been slow to move aggressively to address the issues effectively. The authors attempt to describe “what can be done” in a comprehensive way.


Pipeline issues

The number of engineering graduates at the bachelor’s level in the US peaked at around 80,000 per year in the mid 1980’s, then declined to about 65,000 per year until the end of the century (Engineering Workforce Commission 2004). The number of graduates is increasing again, but not yet keeping pace with employer’s needs. To put these numbers in global perspective, it is of interest to note that China currently has 3.7-million engineering students in its pipeline.

There are many reasons for the decline of student interest in engineering:

The curriculum is difficult – Much difficult study and hard work is included in the current undergraduate curriculum in engineering, and that is built on top of strenuous prior preparation requirements in the secondary education years. Engineering curricula typically start with two years of intense mathematics and science – including calculus, probability and statistics, modern physics, chemistry and biology – often taught by service department faculty members who do not put this preparatory work in the context of engineering applications. This is typically followed by challenging engineering science courses, taught by engineering faculty members – but often research oriented doctoral graduates with little applied engineering experience to bring into the classroom for motivation.

The curriculum is densely packed and inflexible – Even though the number of credit hours required for graduation in engineering has drifted downward as other parts of the university head for only 120 credit hours for graduation, the actual time required for engineering students to complete degree requirements remains much higher than for other fields. The four-year bachelor’s degree programs in engineering schools are typically highly lock-stepped, with prerequisites offering little flexibility for individualized programs or broadening experiences – such as a semester abroad. Engineering students who miss a required step in the proper order often must take an additional semester or year to complete their studies – at considerable extra expense and loss due to postponed employment.

Other paths to good jobs are easier – High school students looking at various options for university level study often compare engineering to alternate paths – such as computer science – where the curriculum is less formidable, and where jobs at compensation levels similar to engineering jobs are readily available.

Engineers treated as commodities by employers – In the current employment environment, engineers are often treated as commodities by employers. They are likely to be laid off when the quarterly balance sheet is not positive, or when new graduates with sharper technical skills are available at lower cost, or when their function can be offshored at lower cost to the company. This leads to employment patterns that include multiple positions with different employers, but often involving lateral moves at best. Previous patterns of upward mobility throughout a progressing career are often lacking (Jones and Oberst 2003).

Traditional entry level jobs are being offshored – The types of jobs that fresh engineering graduates have filled until recently – support positions in technical operations of large employers of engineers – are now often being outsourced to offshore locations where good technical talent is available at much lower cost. This can result in fewer job opportunities for bachelor level engineering graduates, and lower salary offers (Oberst and Jones 2004).

Media reports indicate instability – The offshoring of technical jobs, as reported often in the media, transmits an aura of instability in the engineering profession – including the specter of unemployment. Potential engineering students and their families see such reports, and are often influenced away from engineering study and employment.

Another area of concern in the engineering education pipeline is the lack of diversity in the student population – both women and minority students (National Science Foundation 2003a, 2003b and 2004). Women students typically make up less than 20 percent of engineering classes, and minority engineering student populations typically fall well below the percentage of Black or Hispanic people in the community from which students are drawn. These populations often leave the potential engineering student pipeline even before high school – often opting not to take the math and science courses that would be needed to make them eligible to enter an engineering program at the college level. In addition to the factors listed above, women are often turned off by engineering due to stereotyped images of engineers as nerdy white males.

A very major concern in the US today is the size and composition of the doctoral pipeline in engineering (National Science Foundation 2003c). In the boom years, jobs were so lucrative for engineering bachelor’s graduates that few went on to graduate study – particularly through a doctoral degree. Universities responded by attracting increased numbers of foreign graduate students, to fill research and teaching assistant positions – and eventually faculty ranks. In some fields today, well over half of the engineering faculty are foreign born. In the post 9/11 era, the flow of foreign graduate students to US engineering graduate schools has slowed substantially – due to visa and security problems. In addition, developing countries such as China and India have developed their own good quality graduate engineering programs, allowing students from those countries to stay at home for study – and countries such as Australia are aggressively seeking students who would previously have sought US graduate educations.

Some observers in the US do not believe that there is a problem with declining engineering enrollments. They argue that market forces will keep the supply and demand in balance. While that dynamic may have been at least somewhat true in the past, it is drastically altered in the rapidly globalizing workforce environment – where offshoring and mechanisms such as H-1B visas give employers options other than increasing salaries to attract US engineering graduates to their jobs. The authors of this paper believe that the flow of engineering graduates should be kept at a high level – both to meet the needs of employers who traditionally hire engineering graduates, but also to supply the growing number of fields where the quantitative skills and problem solving abilities of engineering graduates are increasingly valued.


Business needs

In an increasingly global environment for businesses and for professional practice, engineers who will be employed by industry need to be much broader than graduates of previous generations. And they will need to be credentialed in ways that are recognized across national borders, and available in sufficient quality and quantity to meet the expanding need of employers seeking graduates with superior quantitative and problem solving skills (National Academy of Engineering 2004).

Globalization impacts

 The globalization of business requires university graduates with an international perspective and with at least some international experience (Jones and Oberst 1999). While that is typical of engineering graduates in Western Europe , it is not typical of engineering graduates in the United States . Just over 5000 US engineering students studied abroad in 2002-03, just 2.9% of all US students studying abroad that year (Institute of International Education 2004). Well less than 10% of all engineering graduates in the US have any international experience when they graduate from their university programs. Several universities do require international experience for their engineering graduates, and many others are instituting programs to provide such experience – but the total activity in this area remains well behind the power curve. 

In addition to well qualified graduates from US engineering programs, US-based companies need qualified engineering graduates in developing countries in sufficient numbers to allow direct foreign investment in such countries (Jones and Oberst 2000). The days of being able to send business and technical personnel from the North to staff operations in the South are over; an indigenous pool of technical personnel must be available to staff the operations of multi-national companies, in order to be politically acceptable to developing nations (InterAcademy Council 2004). To address this issue, many companies – in their enlightened self interest – are involved in stimulating and supporting capacity building efforts in developing countries. Hewlett-Packard, for example, is heavily involved in an “Engineering for the Americas ” capacity building effort being mounted through the Organization of American States and the World Federation on Engineering Organizations.

Graduates of engineering programs today need significant “soft skills” in addition to technical expertise, if they are to be effective for their business employers. With strong input from industry advisors, the US Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (2000) since 2000 has required the following outcomes of engineering education programs:

“Engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates have:

a) an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science and engineering

b) an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret     data

c) an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs

d) an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams

e) an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems

f) an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility

g) an ability to communicate effectively

h) the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context

i) a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning

j) a knowledge of contemporary issues

k) an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice”

Engineering schools must show, through outcomes assessment, that these attributes have been acquired by their graduates.

Offshoring impacts

Business needs native engineers who can help to lead their organizations up the food chain as routine activities and jobs are outsourced offshore. These native engineers need to be able to work effectively with international colleagues, having appropriate sensitivity to cultural differences. They also must be able to work in teams that are geographically separated, utilizing high-tech tools that make such distributed teamwork effective.

Quantitative needs

Business requires a sufficient quantity of engineering graduates to meet its employment needs – with appropriate high quality and appropriate diversity in gender and ethnicity. Broadly educated bachelor’s level graduates continue to be needed, but increasingly master’s level graduates are needed to lead engineering practice up the food chain. Doctoral level graduates are needed – particularly in US domestic operations – to provide innovation and to utilize research and development in applications in order to keep competitive new products and services coming.

Additional qualitative needs

Beyond the basic quality needs cited above, industry needs engineers who are life-long learners, able to keep up with technological advances in this rapidly developing world. And engineering graduates for companies must increasingly be interdisciplinary in education and approach, to keep abreast of and take advantage of the convergences in this bio- , nano- , and info-technology world.


What can be done in education?

Engineering education in the United States is perhaps the most studied and discussed intellectual endeavor in the country. But for all the study, pilot projects, reformation attempts and discussion, it is among the slowest to adopt systemic change.

Many suggestions are relevant to improving engineering education in the United States – and perhaps other portions of the world – to make it more relevant to the needs of business in the increasingly globalized workspace (National Academy of Engineering 2005):

Undergraduate engineering education

·        Make the curriculum more user-friendly [e.g.,  bring design down into the freshman year in order to motivate students for math and science immersion; concentrate on how to learn rather than trying to cover everything in an intense four year curriculum; substitute active learning for formal lectures; etc.]

·        Focus curricula on its relevance to the solution of society’s problems, to provide motivation for the hard work involved [e.g., environmental, health, and infrastructure needs; and the needs of  developing countries]

·        Prepare students for international practice by promoting study abroad and other international exposure opportunities [e.g., engineers without borders experiences]

·        Make undergraduate engineering education at universities a priority equal to research [as the Coalition program of the US National Science Foundation once did]

·        Take advantage of the flexibility offered by ABET’s Criteria 2000 to offer programs that produce more broadly educated, internationally oriented, entrepreneurially stimulated engineering graduates

·        Embrace continuous improvement of engineering education programs, not just periodic change in anticipation of the next accreditation visit

·        Promote systemic change, across the whole of the national engineering education system, based on successful scattered innovations

Graduate engineering education

One major beneficial thrust for the improvement of engineering education programs at all levels would be providing more opportunities for engineering faculty to get international experience by going abroad for research, educational and industrial experience.


What can be done in business?

Business leaders must interact with educators and government policy makers in order to assure that technical employees of appropriate quality and quantity are available for employment. In the current environment, the impacts of globalization and offshoring require particular attention in business-university-government interactions.

Offshoring impacts

University-Industry interactions


What can be done at the policy level?

Many of the recommendations and suggestions listed above would be facilitated by policy level decisions in the United States (Jones 2004). Following are several suggestions:

·        Encourage relevant legislative action to develop rational visa policies, in collaboration with business and professional society leaders

·        Provide financial aid to attract native students into the Ph.D. pipeline, tied to the national imperative to compete in the global marketplace [like the National Defense Education Act, initiated after Sputnik]

·        Make creative use of funds from H-1B and similar visa grants to stimulate native students to fill industry’s needs

·        Expand pre-college efforts at attracting women and underrepresented minorities into the engineering education pipeline

·        Enhance the public understanding of engineering and its contributions to society



The decline of interest of bright students for the study of engineering is the result of many factors – difficulty and lack of flexibility of the curriculum, their perception of the current employment environment where engineers appear to be treated as commodities, and reports of offshoring of many technical jobs. The need for a steady supply of engineering graduates well prepared to work effectively in the global marketplace is undiminished, however. University, business and government leaders must take co-ordinated action to assure the flow of well-qualified engineering graduates in appropriate numbers in order to assure national competitiveness.



Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, 2000, Criteria for Engineering Programs – 2000 (and annually), Baltimore Maryland .

Engineering Workforce Commission, 2004, Engineering and Technology Degrees – 2004 (and annually), American Association of Engineering Societies, Washington DC .

Institute of International Education , 2004, Open Doors – 2004 (and annually), New York City , NY .

InterAcadamy Council, 2004, Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, January 2004, 144 pages.

Jones, 2004, “Cross-Border Engineering Practice”, Russel C. Jones, Proceedings of 2004 Annual Meeting, American Society for Engineering Education, Washington DC .

Jones and Oberst, 2003, “Are US Engineers Being Treated as Commodities?”, Russel C. Jones and Bethany S. Oberst, European Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 3, no. 28,  395-402.

Jones and Oberst, 2000, “International trends in engineering accreditation and quality assurance,” Russel C. Jones and Bethany S. Oberst, The many facets of international education of engineers, Jean Michel, ed. Société européenne pour la formation des ingénieurs (SEFI), Annual Meeting Proceedings, Paris, France.

Jones and Oberst, 1999, “Education for International Practice,” Russel C. Jones and Bethany S. Oberst, Engineering Education: Rediscovering the Centre: Conference Proceedings, Société européenne pour la formation des ingénieurs (SEFI), Copenhagen , Denmark .

National Academy of Engineering , 2004, The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century, Washington DC , 118 pages.

National Academy of Engineering, 2005, Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century, , Washington , DC , 208 pages.

National Science Foundation, 2004, Science and Engineering Educators – 2004 (and annually), Washington , DC

National Science Foundation, 2003a, Science and Engineering Infrastructure for the 21st Century, , Washington , DC , 6 February 2003 , 62 pages.

National Science Foundation, 2003b, Broadening Participation in Science and Engineering Research and Education, Washington DC , 12 August 2003 , 139 pages.

National Science Foundation, 2003c, The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America’s Potential, Washington DC , 14 August 2003 , 77 pages.

Oberst and Jones, 2004, “Canaries in the mineshaft: engineers in the global workplace”, Bethany S. Oberst and Russel C. Jones, Proceedings of 2004 Annual Meeting, American Society for Engineering Education, Washington DC.



WAYNE C. JOHNSON is Vice President for University Relations Worldwide for the Hewlett-Packard Company. He previously held a similar position at the Microsoft Corporation, after a long career at the Raytheon Company. He has taught in the management school at Boston University . He currently serves on the industry advisory group for ABET, the board of the Institute for Women in Technology, the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable, and advisory groups for the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Russel C. Jones is a private consultant, working through World Expertise LLC to offer services in engineering education in the international arena. Prior to that, he had a long career in education: faculty member at MIT, department chair in civil engineering at Ohio State University , dean of engineering at University of Massachusetts , academic vice president at Boston University , and President at University of Delaware .