Engineers are indispensable!

Transforming Missouri businesses: College of Engineering

Since 1951, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) annually has designated a week in February as National Engineers Week to both celebrate the difference engineers make in the world and to get people thinking and talking about the need for engineers.

James E. (Jim) Thompson, dean, College of Engineering

James E. (Jim) Thompson, dean, College of Engineering

This year, Engineers Week was celebrated Feb. 16-22. With the theme “Discover Engineering: Let’s Make a Difference,” NSPE encourages those of us in the profession to spread the word about what we do and why it matters.

Engineers stand firmly behind this country’s clean, safe drinking water. They had a hand in the design of the cars, motorcycles and bicycles that get us around as well the roads we drive on and many of the systems that make up the buildings we travel between. Engineers are responsible for the design and functionality of electronic devices from coffee makers to computers and cellphones and many of their capabilities. They have a hand in the design of medical tools, devices and drug delivery systems, and so much more.

Making a difference is the business of engineers, and they do so through a combination of accumulated knowledge and creative innovation, stretching the limits of what is already known to build new and useful solutions to society’s needs. Engineers make our lives safer and better, and the profession also has a positive impact on the economy by creating jobs and products.

A recent report  prepared by Professor Thomas Johnson and graduate student James Rossi (Word doc) of the University of Missouri’s Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs illustrates engineering’s role as an economic force for Missouri.

The average salary of the nearly 50,000 engineers currently working in Missouri is $81,000, for a total income of roughly $4 billion. Their enterprises contribute an additional 27,000 jobs to the state’s economy — Missouri workers who are earning a total of approximately $1.1 billion. Their combined labor contributes $3.4 billion to Missouri’s gross domestic product.

The researchers estimate that for every additional engineer employed in a state’s workforce, real state GDP increases by more than $3 million annually.

That’s the good news. But there also is reason for concern. This country has fallen behind in preparing students to succeed in engineering and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Funding for research and higher education is declining, as well.

In 2005, the National Academies produced a report titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.”

“Having reviewed trends in the United States and abroad,” the report said, “the committee is deeply concerned that the scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.”

Some of the “worrisome indicators” that led the committee to this conclusion included the United States’ share of global high-technology exports had fallen from 30 percent to 17 percent in the previous two decades.

The National Center for Education reported that in 2003, less than one-third of U.S. fourth- and eighth-grade students performed at or above a level called “proficient” in mathematics.

A 2008 report noted that 34 percent of Singapore undergraduates received degrees in science and engineering. In China, the figure was 31 percent, in Germany 14 percent and in the United States only 4 percent.

The report recommended 20 specific actions in four broad areas: K-12 science and mathematics education; science and engineering research; science and engineering higher education and incentives for innovation. Since then, STEM education has received renewed emphasis including introducing science and engineering concepts and standards for K-12 to prepare for college and careers.

Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, said of the committee’s findings, “The enemy I fear most is complacency. We are about to be hit by the full force of global competition. If we continue to ignore the obvious task at hand while others beat us at our own game, our children and grandchildren will pay the price.”

At MU, the number of undergraduate students enrolled in the College of Engineering has increased 69 percent since 2007 to more than 3,300. During that same period, research expenditures have doubled from about $18 million to a peak of about $35 million in 2011 and are now declining as federal funding shrinks.

The College of Engineering is bursting at the seams of its aging facilities. It is in dire need of a financial commitment on the part of our state legislature to both improve and increase the space needed for research and innovation and to educate new engineers to go out and make the world a better place and to improve the economy of Missouri. Engineers make a difference!

A collection of buttons celebrating past MU Engineering Week events

A collection of buttons celebrating past MU Engineering Week events.

– James E. Thompson, dean of the University of Missouri College of Engineering. Used by permission of the Columbia Daily Tribune