Fortifying the Engineering Workforce Pipeline

Fortifying the Engineering Workforce Pipeline

To identify, train, and retain new engineering talent, flexibility, and creativity, along with some new strategies, will be vital.
When Griselda Ibarra-Godinez was a child, she relished the opportunity to spend time with her father, a mechanic, so she could learn about car components and wonder about the ways in which they’re designed. That experience inspired her to pursue mechanical engineering at Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina, where she’ll soon graduate with an associate’s degree. A first-generation Mexican American, she’s the first in her family to pursue higher education.

“I feel like it’s also even more important because there aren’t many women in engineering, especially in mechanical engineering,” she said.

There are many who share her story, inspired by a family member or close friend to enter the engineering workforce. But as the need for new talent across all fields of engineering continues to widen and the supply of entry-level engineers can’t quite keep up, industry stakeholders need new strategies that will help inspire the next generation to help close the gap.

Griselda Ibarra-Godinez worked with nanoengineers during an internship at the CREST Bioengineering Center.
Across all sectors, there will be an estimated 1.86 million employed engineers by 2032, compared to 1.74 million in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But projections for just how many new engineers will be needed across industries moving forward reach as high as 400,000 per year, depending on how researchers estimate economic growth and the willingness of aging workers to retire. The consensus is that the demand for engineering talent cannot be met with the current supply of newly trained engineers.

It’s not just engineering, of course. In February, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce noted that across all sectors of the U.S. economy, there are 8.9 million job openings, while there are only 6.5 million unemployed workers.

“There are more jobs than there are people right now,” agreed Kathleen Kosmoski, manager of workforce development at ASME. “Unemployment is very low and the economy is continuing to grow. That’s where the dilemma is—how do we get people into the workforce and get them trained, and quickly?”

Since companies need workers immediately, waiting for someone to earn a four-year degree isn’t always a viable option, Kosmoski added. The effort to reduce time-to-talent is driving companies to increasingly pursue new strategies, such as a competency base with short training programs ranging from a week to six months, which helps recruit and train new talent that much faster.

An evolution

“If we look at technology adoption curves throughout the last century, they’re accelerating,” said Jay Hill, vice president of advanced technologies at GE HealthCare. “Computerizing and automating design tools has only sped up the economic engine that leads to more engineering hiring. So, I’m optimistic that that’s a good path forward.”

Among the various ways stakeholders are looking to draw in new talent, perhaps one of the simplest is just spreading the word about what engineers do and how they contribute to society. But it’s not just about reaching youth with messages like that, as parents are often a driving factor in students deciding on a career, Kosmoski added.

“Students coming out of high school right now do not see the value in a college education because of the expense around it. If you’re trying to get a four-year degree, it’s $20,000 to $30,000 a year or more now,” she said.

Demand for engineering talent has far outstripped the supply over the past few decades. Chart: Boston Consulting Group
Instead, students are wanting to get a credential or take a short course to get to a job faster. Employers are also looking at more competency-based hiring rather than strictly at degrees, but some companies aren’t quite ready to make that shift. Others are simply targeting the competency route because of their urgent need for workers.

“It comes down to what position they’re trying to fill and what’s required of that position. There are other positions where they must have that bachelor’s degree and that additional knowledge for whatever reason,” she continued. “It’s just trying to find those bachelor’s degrees is becoming a little bit more difficult.”

Untapped resources

Skills-first hiring can help increase the opportunities for individuals who don’t have access to higher education programs, said Ara Anoshiravani, education and workforce development leader at Deloitte. To that end, the firm is looking at three methods to attract, retain, and develop talent without four-year degrees: apprenticeships, associate degree internships, and skills-first hiring.

The company launched its first four apprenticeship programs in 2023 and last spring began an associate’s degree internship program for software engineering interns in collaboration with the New York Jobs CEO Council. That 12-week rotational program took students through all key engineering disciplines and upon completion, they all received and accepted full-time job offers. A second cohort is moving through the program now.

“What we’re also finding is people who may not have picked engineering as their discipline, maybe they were a sciences major, physics, or math, but if we expose them to the right technology and learning pathways, they end up being very successful [in the engineering space],” said Amit Chaudhary, chief innovation and technology leader at Deloitte. “Just being open to non-traditional ways of thinking about where the workforce may come from and how we can design the workforce has been successful for us.”

Ariel Marroquin interned with ComEd with the help of ASME's Community College Engineering Pathway program.
On the association side, ASME launched an initiative in May 2021 called the Community College Engineering Pathway (CCEP) program, which offers alternate pathways to technical careers by connecting students, institutions, and companies.

"We call a stepped internship program or a progressive program so that you can continue to bring the same student back for several years to help build loyalty in the student,” Kosmoski said. “Companies really like that idea because again, they’re seeing the value in starting earlier on in their career to help mentor them and bring them along their pathway and integrate them into the company culture sooner.”

Within the CCEP is an internship prep program, which takes a student through three months of online training that includes workshops on career readiness and professional development. If students complete all the prep program requirements, ASME then guarantees them an internship placement for the summer.

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“It’s not a heavy loaded program, but it’s a lengthy one,” said Ariel Marroquin, a senior studying mechanical engineering technology at New York City College of Technology, who has been with the CCEP since it started. He now serves as a campus liaison, providing feedback to ASME about the program, how it could be improved, and what more students at community colleges need.

“They’re preparing and matching us with employers that know we’re prepared,” said Marroquin, who plans to continue his education after graduating from City Tech.

Those internships can be virtual or in-person, full- or part-time, but companies are asked to provide meaningful work to these interns that is contributing to the company and helping it grow, while also expanding the knowledge and skillset of that intern. The positions are paid as well at a comparable wage for an entry-level position in their region, Kosmoski added. Ibarra-Godinez and Eric Fisher, an electrical engineering student at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania, both have participated in the program for the last two years and found the experience to be incredibly helpful in understanding what their roles will be in the industry after graduation this spring.

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“I’m eager to begin a career collaborating with like-minded enthusiasts solving real-world challenges like waterborne parasite identification, vision restoration, and remote telemedicine,” Fisher said. “My internship through ASME provided a glimpse into that professional world.”

Since its launch, the CCEP has recruited 1,037 student members that come from a wide range of backgrounds: 23 percent are female, 22 percent Black, 22 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 14 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Another 500 have participated in related events.

Similar work is underway at the Inclusive Engineering Consortium (IEC), a non-profit organization comprised of historically minority-serving institutions that brings together academics, industry, and government to advance education, research, and careers in engineering.

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IEC provides workshops, collaborative models, and resources for both students and faculty. One of its signature programs is the IEC 2to4 program, which helps students transition from a two-year college to a four-year college, and offers up to $10,000 in tuition and stipends.

“Then we have the Pathways to Success program that’s geared at a four-year student. And it does the same thing, gives the student support and stipends. The critical thing is it offers mentoring and internships. So, it’s a full package for the student, not just money,” said Craig Scott, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore and IEC president.

Meanwhile, ASME is also working on a mechanical engineering technology apprenticeship, a program registered by the Department of Labor, with the hopes of having it up and running by the end of 2024.

This alternative pathway to a credential is aimed at students coming out of community college programs who have completed core courses but aren’t, for whatever reason, able to transfer to a four-year institution. “This apprenticeship program will help fill that knowledge and skills gap,” Kosmoski said. “At the same time, it’s an earn while you learn model, so they will be hired on by a company so that they’re employed.”

Apprenticeships ahead

Upskilling’s importance to engineering is growing, not only through internships but apprenticeships as well—although apprenticeships are still most often associated with the trades.

“The concept of engineering apprenticeships is interesting because you can take people with a two-year degree and then bring them up to the expectations that we would have for a four-year graduate,” Hill said. “That also allows us to address our need for specialization.”

In New York City, a program is working to do just that in advanced manufacturing, albeit without any experience or degree requirements. Developed in 2018 by the NYC Department of Small Business Services and the Manufacturing and Industrial Innovation Council (MaiiC), an industry partnership at the Mayor’s Office of Talent & Workforce Development that serves much like a feedback loop between industry and government, ApprenticeNYC provides bridge training, hands-on classroom training, and on-the-job training.

“We heard a few years back on the manufacturing side that businesses had been experiencing workforce needs in the machining sector,” said Neil Padukone, executive director of MaiiC. “Particularly because their workforces were older and retiring, so they really wanted to get younger folks on the entry level side interested in this work and on the pipeline to really do it at scale.”

The first few cohorts through ApprenticeNYC were focused on machining, taking individuals who didn’t necessarily have a background in the field, but were interested in making and building, Padukone said. Employers liked the model and after several iterations began asking for more specialties, from quality control to welding, laser cutting, and even woodworking.

Thanks to that feedback, the program is now more encompassing and was retooled as ApprenticeNYC for Advanced Manufacturing. Today, this city-sponsored and paid apprenticeship is a 12-month program with more than 400 hours of in-person training and more than 1,500 hours of on-the-job training for careers such as computer numerically controlled (CNC) machinist, industrial mechanic, or welder.

“This model of apprenticeship where the employer is really invested in supporting both financially and professionally the career development and education of their workers is really what we’re looking for,” Padukone said.

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By eliminating the need to pay for training or a university degree, apprenticeships remove barriers to entry, while employers also gain a stronger connection with the apprentice as they are invested in that individual’s mobility and growth.

“We really try to be an employer-informed model with all of our curriculum development and our program design, since we try to include New Yorkers who may not necessarily have a college degree or that type of background,” said Imani Council, director of talent and workforce development at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Talent and Workforce Development.

After Brendan Sheridan earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology, he ended up working in retail for a few years instead of in the field. Then he found out about ApprenticeNYC through some outreach efforts and joined the program—that was five years ago. Today, he programs and operates CNC machines and millturns, among other equipment, at Magellan Aerospace.

“I had an easier time with the program because I already had a lot of exposure to CAD through high school, through college, but the program was good because it exposed me to the interface, what I’d be looking at and understanding what I’m reading,” Sheridan said.

But another valuable aspect of the program is that it doesn’t put students in situations with the full pressure of production. “That happens a lot if you’re learning on the job, especially in the shop. And for someone who’s learning, that’s tough,” he said.

A long road

Although Deloitte is seeing a diverse mix of individuals beginning careers with the firm, its retention rate isn’t equitable. Some engineers, women in particular, may leave the workforce for personal reasons after a few years, for example.

“One of the really interesting things that we are doing is we have a program around returnship, or in India we call it second innings, where you might be an engineer or a technologist in the workforce for four or five years, then you left for personal reasons, and you’ve been gone for, let’s say another four or five years,” Chaudhary explained. “We can create an on-ramp that will actually bring you back in the workforce, provide support around training and other areas so that you feel comfortable coming back. And then you can be equally productive because the core skills are still there.”

Innovative approaches will be key, as experts agree that there isn’t one silver bullet that will solve all workforce challenges for all corners of the engineering industry. Instead, it will require a combined effort from industry, academia, government, and associations in the decades ahead as work continues to grow the engineering pipeline.

“We know we won’t achieve success overnight,” Anoshiravani said. “It's going to take time and we need to keep focused on our goals and stay the course.”

Louise Poirier is senior editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine.

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