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February 19, 2024

CT has an engineer shortage; some colleges are working to address the need

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED An engineering classroom at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.

Connecticut’s manufacturing, technology, construction and bioscience sectors are facing a shortage of engineers.

To try to meet that need, universities are expanding programs to produce skilled graduates in a variety of engineering fields.

Questions remain, however, if the state’s colleges can produce engineering graduates fast enough to meet future demand. The state will also need to do a better job keeping those graduates here.

Connecticut has a goal to increase manufacturing and engineering jobs by 4% annually over the next 10 years, said Paul Lavoie, Connecticut’s chief manufacturing officer.

To achieve that goal, the state would need to reverse what’s been at least a decade of stagnation in engineering employment. Connecticut had 33,740 engineering and architectural jobs as of May 2022, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, down 4.26% from five years ago, and slightly above 2013 levels.

The U.S. as a whole faces a similar problem. The country needs to produce about 400,000 new engineers annually to keep up with demand, and it’s possible one in three U.S. engineering jobs will go unfilled each year through at least 2030, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

A shortage of engineers can stunt productivity and growth. The state Department of Transportation last July said it was short 200 to 300 engineers, out of the 1,200 to 1,300 it needs, which is slowing down the agency’s ability to upgrade Connecticut’s roads and bridges, the Connecticut Mirror reported.

Some colleges are trying to address the issue.

The University of St. Joseph in West Hartford is enrolling students for courses in a new engineering bachelor’s degree program that will debut in the fall.

In November, the University of Connecticut elevated its school of engineering to a college as it has aggressively ramped-up recruitment and enrollment.

UConn has invested significantly in its engineering program over the last decade, as part of a 10-year, $1.5 billion expansion plan — dubbed Next Generation Connecticut — that was approved by the state legislature in 2013 to develop UConn into a top research university and innovation hub.

Engineers are in high demand due to the abundance and diversity of available jobs and high pay, according to Jerry Darling, University of St. Joseph’s founding program director of engineering science and a professor of physics and chemistry.

Recent BLS data shows graduates working in engineering earn a median annual salary of $97,000.

“Students know the advantage of a career in engineering, it’s always in the top five” of preferred professions, and industry can’t get enough engineers in all disciplines, Darling said.

A growing field

Engineering is a diverse field with many different focus areas, from mechanical and electrical to aerospace and bioscience.

Each of those disciplines has experienced varying levels of growth or decline in Connecticut.

Over a five-year period, from 2018 to 2022, Connecticut lost 9.9% of its electrical and 5.9% of its biomedical engineers, but saw 69% and 6% growth in electronics and mechanical engineers, respectively, BLS data shows.

Kazem Kazerounian is the dean and a professor of mechanical engineering at UConn’s College of Engineering. He said the transition from a school to a college is recognition of the program’s growth and demand.

Engineering program enrollment at UConn’s main Storrs campus has more than doubled since the fall of 2005. Including regional campuses, UConn has more than 3,600 undergraduate engineering students, Kazerounian said.

There are also about 900 graduate engineering students, and hundreds of others enrolled in professional education programs through UConn’s recently launched Center for Advanced Engineering Education, which offers online degrees as well as certificates, bootcamps and other credit and non-credit options.

Part of the growth has been driven by a concentrated investment by state lawmakers into UConn as part of the Next Generation Connecticut initiative.

It included funding to hire new faculty in science, technology, engineering and math fields. It also led to the construction of a five-story, $95 million Engineering & Science Building, which debuted in 2018.

The School of Engineering uses several floors of the 118,000-square-foot building to house programs such as robotics, advanced manufacturing, cyber physics, virtual and augmented reality and mechatronics, among others.

Engineering program enrollment growth isn’t exclusive to UConn, Kazerounian said. Many engineering schools across the country are seeing similar growth, reflective of the industry’s strong job market, he said.

About 65% of Connecticut’s engineers are UConn graduates, the school estimates, with some of the most common employers including Pratt & Whitney, General Dynamics Electric Boat, Eversource Energy, Medtronic, Lockheed Martin, Belcan, Collins Aerospace, Henkel, Hubbell Inc., among others.

Keeping local talent

Educating young engineers is half the battle, but keeping them in Connecticut after graduation is another challenge.

While many UConn engineering graduates stay in Connecticut, the state as a whole still exports a lot of engineers, which indicates “there’s a disconnect here,” Kazerounian said.

To help keep young engineers in Connecticut, schools must have strong partnerships with local companies and state agencies to offer guidance on career paths as well as internships that are key to connecting young engineers with local industry, experts said.

Raouf Boules, dean of the School of Arts, Sciences, Business, and Education at the University of St. Joseph, said his small college has an advantage because “90% of USJ undergraduate students are native to Connecticut and tend to stay here after graduation.”

USJ worked with numerous industry experts when creating its new engineering program, said President Rhona Free. The Office of Workforce Strategy, Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology and state Department of Transportation provided guidance, along with several staff members who have engineering backgrounds.

Free said Robert Lee, a retired engineer and executive vice president at Westbrook manufacturer Lee Company, “emphasized the need for multiple internships for students throughout their program to expose them to different manufacturing or design operations.”

Lee also stressed the value of keeping classes small and hands-on with experienced professional engineers and full-time faculty as teachers, Free said.

USJ, which has just under 800 undergraduates, anticipates enrolling about 10 students in the new engineering program the first year, 15 the following year and 20 in year three.

USJ said its new program will teach students the entire spectrum of engineering, instead of just one area of the field.

It will also have a concentration in engineering and entrepreneurship to help students and graduates build new business ideas. All students will be required to take a philosophy class, looking at logic, morals, ethics and creative problem-solving, said Darling, the founding program director.

The focus is on not only making sure USJ grads understand the nuts and bolts of engineering, but also ensuring they have a strong moral sense, especially related to social issues, Darling said.

UConn continues to diversify its engineering program. It recently partnered with the arts sector, to train entertainment and sound engineers, and created an engineering and human rights field of study.

Beyond scale and numbers, Kazerounian said the technology that engineers use in any discipline is also advancing.

“There is a need for computer scientists and engineers, with AI and robotics, everything we touch these days has heavy computer components,” he said. “Everything is done online, and that’s driving the growth in computer science and engineers.”

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