By Dusty Weis, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

Sarah FeulingAs long as literally half the population is vastly underrepresented in the engineering and construction fields, solving the often-cited skilled worker shortage is going to be an uphill effort, according to the new leader of a prominent Midwestern engineering college.

Like many, Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) University President Dr. John Walz is concerned by the United States’ diminished position as a producer of engineers relative to peer nations. Once the world leader in the field, the United States in 2010 ranked behind the nations of China, India, Russia, Ukraine and Japan in producing engineering graduates.

China’s rise as a producer of engineers is especially striking, doubling the number of American engineering graduates in 2010—a startling reversal from 2000, when China produced half the number of U.S. engineers.

Speaking to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers Board of Directors, Dr. Walz said that a renewed emphasis on the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields has helped spur a 35 percent increase in U.S. engineering graduates over the last six years, which has prevented the U.S. from falling much further behind. But buried in the encouraging data are more worrying trends, as the proportion of women and minorities obtaining degrees in engineering has declined or remained stagnant in that time.

Not only is a robust engineering workforce critical to keeping U.S. industries and infrastructure in a peak competitive position, Dr. Walz says, but it will be increasingly important to solving the challenges that a growing world population will present in the new century ahead. And if the United States is going to make up ground in the engineering arms race, he believes that losing 50.8 percent of the total population from the available talent pool is a scenario ripe for failure.

“In my view,” Dr. Walz says, “if we are really going to close the skills gap, we have to work on solving the gender gap.”

In 2013, only 19 percent of American students who received an engineering degree were women, down from a peak in 2002 of 21 percent. As only the fifth president in MSOE University’s 114-year history, Dr. Walz has a keen understanding of the institutional inertia inherent in the engineering field, but he believes that steps need to be taken to combat a combination of factors he sees at play in the apparent engineering gender ceiling—starting with students’ perceptions of the field itself.

Gender roles and pocket protector stereotypes

Recalling her graduation with a degree in engineering in 2009, Sara Feuling remembers looking around at her mostly male classmates during the ceremony and trying to stifle an amused chuckle as a speaker lauded her class for its historic accomplishments.

“We got a shout-out from the chancellor…because we had the highest percentage of women graduates in engineering that year that they had ever seen,” Feuling says with a laugh. “There were only, maybe, nine or ten of us out of more than 100, and you’re like, ‘Way to go, ladies!’ Oh wow, that’s sad.”

Sara Feuling, P.E.As one of several construction project managers on the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange program, it’s just one of the odd contradictions Feuling says she has had to learn to accept. While proud of the success she has achieved in a field that is traditionally dominated by men, Feuling is also starkly aware of her status as one of the few women on the job site, and she hopes to see those numbers start to shift.

For his part, Dr. Walz sees women like Feuling as an antidote to the perception that engineering is the province of gawky, middle-aged men with pocket protectors. He believes it’s crucial for the industry to recognize and celebrate these success stories in order to counteract notions about traditional gender roles that he says still make it difficult for women to consider a career in engineering, even in the year 2017.

“I know these still exist because I hear them,” Dr. Walz says. “Females become teachers and nurses, not necessarily engineers, and I can’t believe that still exists, but I hear it.”

Simply by reframing the type of work that engineers do, Dr. Walz says the field itself could do a better job of appealing to a more diverse slate of students. Nationwide and at his own institution, Dr. Walz sees a higher prevalence of women in fields like biomedical and biomolecular engineering than in the more traditional fields of civil, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering.

“People say females are attracted to programs and disciplines where there’s a direct connection to helping people and helping society,” he says. “I think you can help people just as much being a mechanical engineer as you can as a bio engineer. We just need to market that better.”

Having encountered similar attitudes about her line of work among her own peers, Feuling agrees.

“People look at it like you’re not a caregiver,” Feuling says. “But that nurse couldn’t get to work if we didn’t do what we did, and you’re not going to get your food from the farmer without the roads and the bridges and the engineers that make it happen and the skilled labor force that does the work.”

Still a girl, but “one of the guys”

For someone who has become such a passionate advocate for young women in engineering, it’s hard to believe that Feuling herself almost didn’t even consider the field as an option, dabbling first in studies like medicine and architecture. She says she just didn’t know of any women with whom she could identify who had succeeded in the field.

“I wish I had had a role model tell me this was something I would love doing,” Feuling says. “I’ve always been great at math and science. But no one ever said, ‘Hey look at engineering, that might be a good fit for you. I fell into this by happy accident.”

Determined that the next generation of women engineers will not face the same hurdle, Feuling says she feels driven to participate in efforts to encourage young women to consider STEM careers. Through the Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentor 2.0 program, she has even been paired up with a high school-aged aspiring engineer, to whom she serves as a role model and a career advisor of sorts.

And yet, the numbers are daunting. The National Science foundation estimates that only 15 percent of all U.S. engineers are female. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only nine percent of employees in the construction field are women. If it takes strong role models to get more young women interested in those fields, there’s a chicken-or-the-egg shortage of role models that will have to be overcome somehow.

Dr. Walz from MSOE University says that other factors could help fill the increasing national demand for engineers—more high school-level emphasis on STEM, innovative college programming, scholarships and increased availability of engineering work experiences and internships.

But if the U.S. is going to reclaim its position as an engineering superpower, he believes that more needs to be done to get women into the field of engineering. That means identifying the hurdles that have traditionally discouraged them from pursuing engineering as a career, but that also means exposing them to more relatable role models like Sara Feuling.

Feuling says she knows she’s not going to convince every young woman to whom she speaks that engineering is for them, and she doesn’t try to sugar-coat the challenges that the field presents. Her message, rather, is that there’s real value in building something for a living, but also in defying expectations, pursuing your passions and being fearlessly comfortable in your own skin.

“I’m still a girl out there,” Feuling says. “Yes I am ‘one of the guys,’ but I’ll be out there testing concrete with bright pink nails. I put makeup on…You can’t lose that sensitive feminine side either, because it is something you bring to the table that the guys don’t.”

 

Dusty Weis is AEM’s strategic communications manager, covering the impact that new and emerging trends and technologies will have on the construction, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. Email him at dweis@aem.org or follow him on Twitter @dustyweis.

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