Personnel: Promoting Careers in Dam Engineering and Safety

Finding qualified candidates for positions requiring knowledge of dam engineering and safety continues to be difficult. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials has undertaken a variety of initiatives designed to stimulate interest in dam engineering and safety among students.

Employers are experiencing increasing difficulty in finding qualified candidates for positions that require knowledge of dam engineering and safety, the results of two surveys by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) indicate. In the dam engineering and safety fields, the body of knowledge and experience is shrinking as experts retire, and there are fewer initiates who can gain hands-on experience or training from experts.

At the same time, the Report Card for America's Infrastructure, issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers, has consistently given the nation’s dams a grade of ‘D,’ partially based on the rising number of unsafe dams. In 2005, about 3,500 non-federal dams were identified as unsafe; in 2009 that number exceeded 4,000.

To stimulate interest in dam engineering and safety among students of all ages, ASDSO is working through its Committee on Education Outreach on several initiatives. These efforts include establishing an Internet-based Speakers Bureau, providing a Student Employment Opportunities Clearinghouse, offering scholarship awards, soliciting student papers, and encouraging student participation in ASDSO conferences.

Declining interest in engineering

In the late 1990s, the percentage of college students studying engineering declined markedly. According to a 2003 American College Testing (ACT) report, fewer than 6 percent of seniors who took the ACT examination in 2002 planned to study engineering; a decade earlier, the figure was nearly 9 percent.1 A 2003 National Science Board report concluded that declining graduate enrollment in science and engineering “threatens the economic welfare and security of our country.”2

Further, according to surveys conducted by ASDSO in 2004 and 2009, the past two decades have seen an increasingly significant lack of interest, specialization, and courses in dam engineering. This results in a potential “brain drain” for the profession.

ASDSO’s student outreach initiative

ASDSO formed its Committee on Education Outreach in 2004, with the purpose of focusing more attention to one aspect of ASDSO’s strategic plan: promotion of dam safety engineering as a profession in college-level undergraduate and graduate programs.

At its initial meeting in September 2004, committee members agreed to assess the need for increasing the number of professionals who specialize in dam engineering and safety by conducting a survey of employment opportunities in these fields.

Committee members developed a short survey designed to collect information on:

    – Responding organizations (type, services provided, number of employees involved with dams, and number of employees with advanced degrees);
    – Anticipated attrition rates and hiring needs for dam-related positions;
    – Problems in attracting new employees and filling dam-related positions;
    – Awareness of university undergraduate or graduate courses, curricula, or degree programs offering specialized training related to dam safety or engineering; and
    – Steps that should be taken to ensure an adequate supply of qualified technical personnel in any area of dam safety or engineering. 

In late 2004, the committee distributed this survey to more than 2,000 ASDSO members, about 50 related associations, and about 50 journals and newsletters. The committee sent a separate set of questions about current university course offerings to more than 100 university civil engineering departments.

In total, the committee received responses from nearly 200 state and federal agencies, consulting firms, owner/operators, and other organizations. These responses represented nearly 3,700 engineers and technical employees.

Below is a summary of findings from the 2004 survey:

    – More than 27 percent of represented employees held advanced degrees (MS or PhD).
    – The projected attrition rate for dam engineers was high, and future job opportunities appeared to be plentiful. All categories of dam safety-related employers indicated a need for almost 260 engineers over the following year and an estimated need for about 760 engineers for dam safety work over the following ten years as a result of projected attrition primarily due to retirement.
    – The majority of respondents (65 percent) indicated difficulties in finding qualified candidates for dam-related positions. The most commonly noted problems included candidates’ lack of experience and training and low pay for entry-level positions, particularly in state dam safety programs. Many respondents indicated that state budget constraints significantly hampered their efforts to hire qualified staff; further, highly trained and overworked state employees often seek better opportunities elsewhere. Regarding experience, many respondents said that their employees worked on a variety of projects; thus, the best candidates were those with broad knowledge that can be trained for specific duties as needed. 

    Students are invited to present posters and papers at ASDSO’s national and regional conferences.

The committee received a variety of comments in response to the survey’s final question: “How can ASDSO and the Committee on Education Outreach best serve your current and future needs for trained engineers?” In the open-ended responses to this question, two major themes emerged: The need for promoting awareness of careers in dam safety and engineering, and promoting dam safety courses at universities. Respondents also suggested promoting co-op and internship opportunities for students and publicizing job opportunities in dam engineering and safety.

The ensuing work of ASDSO’s Committee on Education Outreach has built upon these suggestions. From 2006 to 2009, the committee created several new resources for university students:

    – A Speakers Bureau that provides guest speakers for classes and student groups throughout the U.S. The primary goal of the Speakers Bureau is to attract university and secondary school students to careers in dam safety. But it also serves to increase general public awareness of dams and dam safety. Speakers Bureau volunteers share their expertise on topics related to dam safety, tailoring their presentations to the audience. The Committee on Education Outreach developed two Powerpoint presentations for use by speakers invited by university engineering student groups. One provides an overview of career opportunities, and the other is a more detailed presentation on dam safety in the U.S., including issues, history, and policy.
    – An online clearinghouse for internships, co-op programs, and employment opportunities. ASDSO invites employers to list student opportunities on its website free of charge. ASDSO membership is not a requirement. Any employer who has a student position related to dam or levee safety may use this tool.
    – A student paper competition connected with ASDSO’s annual conference. In 2009, ASDSO held its first paper competition, open to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in U.S. universities. Three winners received $500 awards and presented papers at Dam Safety 2009, ASDSO’s national conference in Florida. All three winners either were or are pursuing graduate degrees from their respective universities in areas related to dam safety. The Committee on Education Outreach is sponsoring its second student paper competition in association with Dam Safety 2010.
    – On-request resources for project assistance with design classes. ASDSO’s membership includes dam safety experts from around the country who are eager to share their expertise with the next generation. In addition, several members of the Committee on Education Outreach are professors who have used dams as capstone course projects. Also, ASDSO’s series of webinars is available for classroom use. Currently there are four available presentations, each about 90 minutes long. 

ASDSO’s scholarship program

The Committee on Education Outreach also was instrumental in enhancing ASDSO’s existing scholarship program. This program was established in1992 to award excellence in the study of civil engineering and related fields and to make students more aware of careers related to dam and levee engineering and safety. Through this program, ASDSO has awarded nine annual scholarships of up to $10,000 to 40 senior undergraduates.

A simple (but messy) dam-building activity is one feature of ASDSO’s booth at Engineering Day at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. The booth also features Powerpoint presentations on various dam safety topics and member-supplied giveaways.

Soon after it was formed in 2004, the Committee on Education Outreach encouraged ASDSO’s Board of Directors to:

    – Double the scholarship award to $10,000;
    – Provide a free one-year membership to scholarship recipients; and
    – Sponsor recipients’ attendance at ASDSO’s annual conference, where they are recognized at the annual Awards Banquet. 

Since 2005, ASDSO, with the generous support of its members, has sponsored conference attendance (including travel, meals, and lodging) by 12 scholarship winners. Almost all of the scholarship winners who have attended ASDSO conferences are now employed in dam-related fields or are pursuing graduate degrees in engineering.

Long-range planning

The committee also has several initiatives targeting younger students. These include the “Kids’ Pages” on ASDSO’s website, providing guest speakers in elementary and secondary classrooms on request, and participating in Engineering Day activities at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where ASDSO is headquartered. For the past six years, hundreds of students of all ages have visited ASDSO’s “E-Day” display and activity center, which features:

    – Powerpoint presentations on various dam safety topics;
    – Handouts on ASDSO’s scholarship and student outreach activities;
    – Member-supplied giveaways, including flyers advertising and describing job opportunities in dam safety; and
    – A simple (but messy) dam-building activity for the younger set (see “Our Community/Kids” on ASDSO’s website at for instructions). 

2009 employment opportunities survey

In December 2009, the Committee on Education Outreach decided to see if the findings of its 2004 survey remained relevant in the wake of the recession. The group distributed a follow-up survey to three segments of ASDSO’s membership: representatives of ASDSO company members and state and federal regulatory programs. Survey results are still being collected, but preliminary results are consistent with the findings of the 2004 survey, despite the intervening economic downturn:

– The outlook for job opportunities in dam and levee engineering appears to be healthy. To date, 76 respondents report 85 current openings (including three state positions currently frozen due to budget constraints) for dam and levee engineers and technicians and anticipate hiring about 275 new employees over the next year. Of these new employees, 55 percent likely will fill replacement positions. Over a three-year period, respondents expect to hire more than 550 new employees, 59 percent of whom are expected to replace current personnel. Anticipated ten-year retirement projections are 21 percent of company personnel, 26 percent of state personnel, and 36 percent of Corps personnel engaged in dam or levee safety activities.

– There is a shortage of experienced candidates for technical positions related to dam and levee engineering. Roughly half of the respondents within each group indicate difficulty attracting and retaining qualified candidates, although this problem is most pronounced in state dam safety programs, which generally offer lower pay than the private and federal sectors. As one state respondent remarked, “The state’s salary is not compatible with [salaries offered by] consultants, most counties within the state, and the federal government. Accordingly, retaining qualified employees has been difficult. Entry-level employees get their training and move on to better paying jobs with the outside industry.”

Keith Thole is a former ASDSO scholarship winner who is now employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

– Attracting new recruits is less problematic than finding experienced technical personnel. Only 8 percent of companies and 28 percent of state dam safety program report difficulties in recruiting for entry-level positions. Many survey responses are consistent with the comment of a representative of a large national engineering firm: “At entry level or [for positions requiring] a couple of year’s experience, there seems to be a growing talent pool. However, very few are trained or have project experience in dam safety engineering.”

– Technology transfer remains a concern. Current supplies of undergraduates seem to be on the rebound. However, a lapse of new initiates in the field from the late 1990s to present has resulted in a shortage of experienced technical personnel. One respondent, representing another large national engineering firm employing more than 2,000 engineers with skills applicable to dams, notes, “There is a large and very obvious gap in the labor pool. Specifically, there is a great need for professionals with seven to ten years of experience. Unfortunately, these folks simply do not exist – [this is] an outgrowth of the dot-com era.”

– Few respondents were aware of university courses specifically related to dam and levee engineering. Of all 81 respondents, only nine said that they were aware of university courses specifically related to dam and levee engineering. Many expressed opinions consistent with the comment of a state official: “It is probably too much to expect universities to graduate trained dam safety intern engineers. The area is too specialized and too small. Indeed, it would probably be a poor service to graduates to allow them to specialize so precisely.”

Looking to the future

Attracting students to careers in engineering is a continuing challenge. In 2008, the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Young Engineers Advisory Council issued the results of a poll questioning young engineers about the factors that motivate them toward a particular career.3 For respondents, the top motivating factors were:

  1. Career growth/advancement opportunities. Engineers thrive on challenges and opportunities for continuous learning;
  2. Self-improvement. This aspect encompasses both technical and personal improvement. Not only do young engineers want to be licensed, they also seek opportunities to contribute to society through service organizations, such as Engineers Without Borders.
  3. Compensation via salary. Engineers are highly skilled professionals who are exposed to significant risks. (For comparison, compensation via bonuses was a relatively insignificant motivator for respondents to this poll.)
  4. Desire to prove worth. Contributing to the greater good of society remains a constant motivator, while gaining respect from colleagues becomes less important with experience.
  5. Client satisfaction. The importance of keeping up with technology and learning to effectively handle clients and projects increases with experience.
  6. Interest level in job. Variety is a plus.
  7. Sense of professional obligation. Half of those polled consider a moral obligation to protect the public welfare to be the single most significant motivational factor in choosing a career. 

Many of these factors are situationally determined. But, for all who choose a career in dam safety, the sense of professional obligation – the desire to protect public safety – is a given.

Winners of ASDSO’s student paper competition receive a $500 award and present their papers at the ASDSO national conference. The Committee on Education Outreach is sponsoring its second student paper competition in association with the 2010 conference.

Attracting young people to the profession of designing, building, maintaining, and operating safe dams is essential to ensure the safety of those living downstream and the continuation of economic and life-line benefits many dams provide. While the glamorous era of constructing multiple large new dam projects in the U.S. has passed, the 100,000 or so existing dams must be maintained to provide safe and secure storage structures for satisfying this nation’s need for flood control, water supply, hydroelectric power, and recreation. A plethora of career opportunities exist in dam removal, dam modification, rehabilitation, risk assessment, dam failure analysis, and emergency action planning. In the coming years, ASDSO will continue to expand its efforts to encourage young people to consider this specialized and exciting niche of engineering.


  1. Maintaining a Strong Engineering Workforce, American College Testing, Iowa City, Iowa, 2003.
  2. The Science and Engineering Workforce/Realizing America's Potential, NSB 03-69, National Science Board, Arlington, Va., 2003.
  3. Motivation Factors of Young Engineers, National Society of Professional Engineers, Arlington, Va., 2008. 

Sarah McCubbin-Cain, information specialist for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), coordinates the activities of ASDSO’s Committee on Education Outreach. Bruce Tschantz, P.E., is professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee. He has chaired this committee since its inception in 2004. 

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