Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2012, 4:00 pm

Engineering a field that is in demand

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By Lindsay Hocker,

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Photo: John Greenwood
Sam Payne, left, Kyle Heaton and Andrew Kapraun, engineering students at St. Ambrose University, examine a communication device which was designed for a 15-year-old cerebral palsy female who cannot speak but can communicate with eye blinks and the device. Engineering students are in demand right now, with some people saying there's a shortage of them.
Despite a lagging economy that has resulted in massive layoffs around the country over the past few years, one field that seems to stay in demand is engineering.

That's why many colleges are expanding their engineering programs.

Dr. Michael Opar, an engineering professor and chairman of the engineering and physics department at St. Ambrose University, said there's been a shortage of engineers for quite some time, with students "kind of shying away from quantitative degrees," because they don't want to take courses such as calculus and physics.

Dr. Opar, who has a doctorate in industrial engineering, said St. Ambrose has had an industrial engineering program, but added a mechanical engineering program last fall "to really address the need for engineers."

He said "the bulk" of SAU industrial engineering graduates "have jobs before they graduate."

Dr. Joshua Dyer, Augustana College assistant professor of engineering physics, who has a doctorate in high energy particle physics, said he's heard there's a shortage of engineers and that some big companies are opening shops overseas in countries that produce more engineers.

Augustana started its engineering physics program in 2010. It's designed for students interested in the applied side of physics or considering the college's pre-engineering program, according to

Before offering a bachelor's degree in engineering physics, Augustana students interested in an engineering degree could take pre-engineering there, then transfer to another school for the degree.

Dr. Dyer said that because of the economy, it's "harder than it used to be" for engineers to find jobs, but still easier than with many other majors.

He thinks one reason engineers are in demand is because engineering is about solving problems. "There are always problems out there and they need to be solved."

Dr. Bill Pratt, director of the School of Engineering at Western Illinois University, has a doctorate in mechanical engineering. He said the Macomb campus has had a pre-engineering program for about 25 years, with students able to take two years of courses before transferring to another school to finish a four-year engineering degree.

In August of 2009, the college began offering a bachelor's in engineering degree -- the junior and senior years -- in the Quad-Cities. The first students graduated last May. Local students can get the first two years at Black Hawk or Scott Community College.

Dr. Pratt said he's been told there are about 10,000 engineers in the Quad-Cities region (within 50 miles of the Quad-Cities) and "supposedly, 20 percent of them are retiring in the next three to five years."

He said he's also heard that the unemployment rate for engineers is lower than the national average, and is unaware of any qualified engineer being unable to find a job. "There are plenty of them (engineering jobs) out there, and we hope it stays that way," Dr. Pratt said.

Dr. Douglas Davidson, a professor at Black Hawk College with a doctorate in physics who also teaches engineering, said he sees "conflicting reports" regarding whether there's a shortage of engineers.

"I think the job prospects are good to very good" for engineering graduates, depending on what area of engineering they're going into, he said.

Scott Community College mathematics instructor Ryan Melbard, who teaches engineering-level math courses and has a professional engineering license, said "It's my perception that engineers are in demand now and will continue to be in demand for years to come. Engineering graduates are receiving job offers even before graduation despite the tough economy."

Sarah Zehr, assistant dean and director of Engineering Career Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said whether there's a shortage of engineers depends on who you ask, but "there's certainly a high demand for them."

She said many companies are hiring a significant number of engineers at this time, and many will be retiring soon and will need to be replaced.

Even companies in other fields are hiring engineers because of their education, Ms. Zehr said. "The skills they gain are valued in a lot of areas."

Phil Jordan, director of engineering professional development at the University of Iowa's College of Engineering, said the engineering college at Iowa has "had record enrollment for our students for five of the last six years."

He said 96.3 percent of last May's graduating class had a job, or went on to graduate or professional school within 90 days of graduating.

Engineering is "an excellent profession to go into," Mr. Jordan said, with the average starting salary for engineers with bachelor's degrees at about $60,000 nationally.

What do local companies have to say about the demand for engineers?

Alcoa: "Good engineers, particularly electrical engineers, are indeed in demand. We are always looking for technical talent and we are supportive of efforts to increase the capacity to grow the pool of engineers right here in the Quad-Cities." -- John Riches, spokesman

Deere & Company: "John Deere is growing around the world. With this growth comes a need to hire talented individuals in many different fields, including engineering. While not all fields of engineering are experiencing a shortage of job candidates, some are.

In the recent past, Deere has experienced a shortage of candidates who are qualified as embedded engineers, electrical engineers, software engineers, weld engineers, and materials and metallurgical engineers.

Some of these areas are still experiencing shortages. ... Because Deere is a leading manufacturer that builds large, technically-advanced products, engineering skills are a core competency of the company. We employ engineers in many different disciplines.

As the company continues to grow, we will have an ongoing need to hire engineers for assignments in many different locations around the world." -- Ken Golden, director of global public relations

Sivyer Steel Corporation: "For the steel-castings industry, younger engineers are in shortage. The technical engineering workforce is aging. One reason is that for our industry, engineers need one to two years of in-house training before he can make an impact that justifies his salary and cost.

Due to market conditions, business cycles, overseas competition and the specialized industry training time required, steel foundries have not invested in young engineering talent. However, over (the) next decade the steel-foundry industry looks promising and some are looking to hire and train young talent.

There are very few universities that offer casting/foundry engineering degrees or classes. This will need to be expanded in the future." -- Doug Smith, technical director

KJWW Engineering Consultants: "They're always in demand. It's a very competitive field to hire engineers. When we go to college job fairs, we compete with Microsoft, Boeing and General Electric -- huge American institutions." -- Tim Anderson, human resources manager