Does the U.S. Have Enough Engineers To Reach its Renewable Energy Goals?

I’ve heard some people say that there aren’t enough engineers graduating from accredited programs in the United States these days and I’m wondering if that will impact this country’s renewable energy goals. First, can you tell me if that is true and if it is, what should we do about it? — Marvin E., Washington, DC.

Marvin, that’s a good question. In fact, I have been getting a lot of calls from recruiters in the marine field looking for people recently (which is surprising, given the economy), and I have heard about of a bunch more engineering openings in a lot of other industries.

Overall throughout this country, there seems to be a shortfall of about 75,000 engineers, even in the current economic conditions, and even before all of the new activities in renewable energy that are supposed to start soon. This is approximately a year’s graduating class for the whole country. I can’t even begin to tell you how hard it is to find traditional electrical (vice electronic) engineers, and these engineers are key to any activity involving generating or transmitting electrical power.

The problem is that there has been a steady decrease in people even going into sciences and engineering to begin with, and then either dropping out, changing majors or changing fields once they graduate. My own friends and classmates in engineering now include ship brokers, lawyers, real estate agents, a senior exec in a fast food chain, even a chef and a farmer.

This is a real problem for any part of the economic recovery and especially for renewable energy, since as a rule of thumb, at least 5% of the cost of most new construction or manufacturing projects is engineering. This means that out of $1 billion of stimulus money approximately $50 million of that will be in engineering costs. With an average billing rate of about $75/hr, this is 666,666 manhours, or more than 333 engineers. The size of the stimulus package suggests that there is probably a need for an additional 60,000 or more engineers, beyond the current shortfall, and many of the shortfall will be in renewable energy fields, which will require even more complicated engineering than some of the basics, like building roads.

There is a lot of discussion about why there is a decline in people entering engineering and science, with a lot of arguments about declining educational standards or better opportunities in other fields, but the reality is that it is a problem.

And even when one becomes an engineer, there are retention problems in the field. There are a lot of exit strategies — for example, you can take the patent bar exam if you have a degree in engineering or science, without going to law school — and both of the patent attorneys I know are former chemical engineers. This means that every time a specific field slumps, a portion of the trained experts are lost for good.

I don’t have a clue what to do in the short term, especially if the economy gets better enough that all of the engineers who have been holding off retirement because their 401Ks tanked actually retire.

But my favorite solution, in the long term, takes a page from my own career. I’ve worked with or for a lot of India Institute of Technology (IIT) grads. IIT was set up by Nehru to ensure that India had the technical people it needed for its future, though of course it has done a lot for the U.S. as well. IIT used to be very inexpensive, even by Indian standards, so IIT graduated a lot of engineers, economists and others over the years. Likewise, a lot of people I’ve worked with got a free engineering education from the Coast Guard Academy, the Naval Academy or the Merchant Marine Academy (including my father). Webb Institute of Naval Architecture is also tuition free, though privately supported. Perhaps a free federal institute of technology system might address this problem in the long term. And it might also be a source of research efforts.

For me, I’ve always looked at an engineering career as sort of like veterinary medicine — though it’s as difficult as other fields you are capable of, and you earn a lot less, it’s something you do for reasons other than money. However, this makes it hard to convince a lot of young people to go into engineering or to stay in.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official policy of the Coast Guard or the Department of Homeland Security.

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Christopher D. Barry, P.E. is a naval architect and co-chair of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers ad hoc panel on ocean renewable energy. He has worked in design agencies, shipyards and manufacturers in the marine industry and in offshore oil exploration and currently works for the Coast Guard.

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