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Growing Engineers to Grow Manufacturing

Kentucky’s surging engineering enrollments, graduate numbers must keep growing to fill industry demand

By Greg Paeth

Dr. Sean Bailey, left, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Kentucky, focuses on directing research with a student who is studying aeronautical engineering.
Dr. Sean Bailey, left, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Kentucky, focuses on directing research with a student who is studying aeronautical engineering.

Based on a long list of projections by people who get paid to predict where Kentucky’s economy will be soon, the commonwealth’s major engineering schools need to crank out more and more graduates who can help establish the state as a leader in manufacturing.

A long list of corporate announcements earlier this year about plans to build multimillion-dollar manufacturing plants and shipping facilities translates to thousands of new jobs in the state, especially for the relatively small pool of electrical, mechanical, chemical and computer engineers critical to huge corporations that demand state-of-the-art plants, equipment and talent.

Since the beginning of the year, explosively growing Amazon has announced it will create some 2,700 jobs in a $1.5 billion Amazon Prime Air Hub at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport in Boone County. Toyota has invested $1.33 billion on a tune-up for the ages at its massive 8.1 million-s.f. Georgetown manufacturing plant, which has a payroll of 8,200. Braidy Industries made huge headlines in April unveiling plans to create 550 advanced manufacturing jobs in Greenup County when it completes work on a $1.3 billion aluminum rolling mill.

Gov. Matt Bevin drove home his message about the state’s booming economy and the need for more engineering graduates when he addressed the Governor’s Conference on Postsecondary Education Trusteeship in Louisville in mid-September. He urged top officials at Kentucky universities to find a way to dramatically increase the number of engineering graduates and – if necessary – jettison some programs that don’t produce people who have 21st-century job skills.

“I challenge you to say to yourselves, ‘If we’re graduating 250 people out of our engineering school … why is it 250 and not 1,000? And what are we going to do between now and 2030 and a whole lot sooner to make sure it’s 1,000?’ ” news reports quoted Bevin saying.

“He (Bevin) has talked about his vision for Kentucky to be the go-to state if you’re going to design, engineer and manufacture the best products,” said Hal Heiner, the secretary of Bevin’s Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development.

The governor wants business leaders from all over the country to “think first of Kentucky,” Heiner said, “and obviously the key thing in all of that is workforce and engineers – not only at the bachelor and graduate level but also engineering at the applied science level.”

Right now, Kentucky’s two major engineering schools at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville are graduating about 870 people each year, a number just barely adequate to meet the demand for 4,400 engineers over the next five years, said Heiner, whose comments reflected recent state studies on employment trends.

“If you’re projecting 4,400 jobs and were graduating about 4,400 with bachelor’s degrees in five years, (you may ask) do we need to increase? But if you look at the economic development successes and the technical nature of those wins and you combine that with the fact that Kentucky is under-producing engineers when we want to be the hub of engineering excellence,” he said, “it’s time to continue that growth (of engineering programs). We have a one-to-one match, but that doesn’t mean that those graduates will all stay in Kentucky and take jobs.”

Western Kentucky University also has an engineering program that dates to 2001 and produced its first graduate in 2004, but it is small in comparison to UK and UofL. As of July 1, the WKU computer science, engineering and architectural and manufacturing science programs were merged to create the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said Stacy Wilson, the director of the school.

On a per capita basis, the entire country graduates about 100,000 engineers per year, which means the state should be producing somewhere between 1,300 and 1,400 engineers per year just to keep up with U.S. averages, the cabinet secretary said.

“When you talk to the Amazons of the world and ask them if (the U.S. economy) has plateaued from a technology standpoint, they say, ‘No, if anything, technology is advancing at a faster rate than ever,’” Heiner said. “If we’re just barely there (with some 870 graduates per year), we need to at least meet the national average, if not exceed it.”

In the most recent academic year, UK and UofL awarded just over 1,000 undergraduate degrees (631 at UK; 377 at UofL), which exceeds Heiner’s graduation numbers but falls far short of the 1,300-1,400 rate needed for Kentucky to pace the national average.

Another 107 grad students at UK received advanced degrees in the discipline while 253 graduate degrees were awarded at UofL’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering.

Western Kentucky conferred undergraduate degrees on 78 students in the electrical, mechanical and civil engineering programs for the most recent academic year, about 20 percent fewer than the previous year but an increase of about 20 percent from 2012-13, according to Wilson. Current enrollment stands at about 640 with nearly 290 of those students in the mechanical engineering program that is critical to manufacturers, she said.

Heiner’s lower figures accurately reflect data gathered a couple of years ago for the Kentucky Future Skills Report, which covers 2010-14, according to Ross Barrett, an analyst who studies education and workforce statistics for the state.

There’s no question that there’s an engineering shortage in the state, according to Bridgett Strickler, who is based in Louisville and works as the director of network engagement for a national organization called The Graduate Network.

“Employers are having a hard time finding engineers,” Strickler said by email, referencing her organization’s survey of hundreds of Kentucky employers. “Eighty-three percent of respondents said engineering positions were somewhat difficult or very difficult to fill. Engineers are among the top three most difficult jobs to fill in Kentucky.” The other two are high-skill medical and skilled trade jobs.

Based on state data that she’s reviewed, she believes graduating 1,000 engineers per year could meet the demand in Kentucky.

But the shortage results because only 54 percent of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates from Kentucky universities wind up working in the state, said Strickler, whose data was from 2015.

Larry Holloway, interim dean of the UK College of Engineering, and his counterpart at the University of Louisville, interim dean Gail W. DePuy, agree with Heiner and Strickler that there is a rapidly growing demand for more engineers in Kentucky and that out-of-state migration is likely a factor in the supply-demand equation.

“There is data that shows that on a per capita basis, Kentucky is behind a number of our neighbors (nearby states) in the number of engineering graduates,” said Holloway.

A graduate of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, one of the top engineering schools in the country, Holloway took a job at UK in 1991 around the time the university created its Center for Manufacturing, which was restructured as the Institute for Sustainable Manufacturing in late 2009. Interest in cutting-edge manufacturing was a primary reason for his move to Kentucky, Holloway said.

Other states’ numbers are much bigger

A spot check of nearby states supports observations by Heiner and Holloway about the state’s relatively low engineering graduation rate.

Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, has more than 8,900 undergraduates and nearly 3,600 graduate students in an engineering school that routinely ranks among the best in the country. Purdue conferred nearly 1,700 bachelor’s degrees – more than the total for UK and UofL for the 2016-17 academic year – when nearly 1,000 people received graduate degrees in engineering from Purdue.

Ohio State had about 8,200 engineering students in the fall of 2016 and graduated nearly 1,500 engineers in the summer of 2015 and the fall of 2016, according to its engineering department’s annual report for last year.

Virginia Tech had nearly 10,000 students in its undergraduate and graduate engineering programs for the 2016-17 academic year. Nearly 1,400 students received bachelor’s degrees and 464 completed graduate work last year from a university that has a stellar reputation in engineering.

DePuy said manufacturers typically need mechanical and industrial engineers, while electrical and computer engineers also would be critically important on the production line. Holloway was hesitant to talk about any discipline being more important than another, but he did say nearly every manufacturer needs mechanical and electrical engineers and that chemical and biosystems engineers might be next on the “must hire” list.

“Engineering is more than anything else a way for students to learn how to solve problems and to think rigorously,” Holloway said.

Both Holloway and DePuy said their schools are growing quickly in an effort to meet a demand that has risen substantially in recent years for a variety of reasons, including the strength of Kentucky’s manufacturing sector.

At UK, the number of undergraduates has more than doubled from about 1,600 in 2007 to about 3,450 last fall, and the number of bachelor’s graduates has increased by 38 percent since 2009. UK awarded 631 undergraduate degrees last year and another 107 received post-graduate degrees.

“For most of our engineering graduates, there are opportunities that are out there in manufacturing, and certainly manufacturing is an important part of the economy of Kentucky,” Holloway said.

It pays well, and they like it

Besides the prospects of finding a job after graduation, there are other reasons why engineering schools are filling their classrooms.

“Students are exposed to so much technology that a lot of them have a lot of comfort with it and are very excited about it. I think the economics are very appealing to students when they find out that they can graduate and have a starting salary that’s very, very healthy,” Holloway said. “Almost every survey you read in terms of the top starting salaries almost always are full of engineering and computer science majors.”

UK engineering offers degrees in both computer science and computer engineering.

The UK College of Engineering website makes it clear that some of the students make projections about their future checking-account balances. The boldest type on the first page of the website is reserved for the number $61,245 – said to be the average starting salary after graduation.

The college’s growth plan, Holloway said, calls for at least 1,000 undergraduate degrees annually in the near future and 1,300 a year by 2025.

At Louisville, interim Dean DePuy said the 377 undergraduates who received degrees last academic year is a school record – that will be broken by the next graduating class. Just six years ago the Speed School number was 276.

There are now about 2,100 Speed School undergraduates and about 600 grad students on campus, an increase of roughly 40 percent since the 2011-12 school year, she said.

“We are certainly growing dramatically,” said DePuy. “All engineering schools are seeing their number of applications go up. We’re sort of riding the national wave. In terms of why the university is interested in increasing our numbers: There is a demand for our graduates…

“I believe the growth in the kind of industry that we are trying to attract – and frankly, the kind of industry every other state is trying to attract – would all require engineers. We as a state have to be able to demonstrate that we can support those industries as we’re trying to attract additional auto manufacturing and distribution centers and aviation manufacturing and healthcare firms. They all need engineers,” she said.

Many of the jobs that are opening up have been held by baby boomers who are at or near retirement age. Other jobs are new, created by the expansion of existing businesses or companies that are new to the state, DePuy said.

DePuy said she hopes the presence of the J.B. Speed School of Engineering is one factor that led Louisville to be named the top city in the country for manufacturing growth. A June story in Forbes magazine said manufacturing in Louisville and Jefferson County has increased by 30 percent since 2011. The well-regarded business publication said 83,300 people work for manufacturers in the metropolitan region and the growth rate was the highest in the country.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, which has the capacity to build 550,000 vehicles per year in Georgetown, is an existing business that’s always looking for engineers “because we want to have a great pipeline” of talent, said Kim Menke, manager of community and government relations for Toyota in North America.

Menke, an environmental engineer from WKU who went to work for the automaker when it broke ground in Georgetown 30 years ago, said he couldn’t estimate how many of the company’s 8,200 employees in Georgetown are engineers. But he did say that a stand-alone operation in Georgetown, the Northern American Production Engineering Campus, employs “600 or so engineers who work there and support our operations across North America.”

Like Heiner, Menke stressed the importance of other people who do engineering work – engineering technicians and technologists – who do what is often described as applied engineering rather than the more theoretical engineering that is the focus of most four-year university programs.

“With advanced manufacturing, we have (many) skill sets that are necessary. It kind of raises the bar for everybody. You need a broad range of folks – those four-year degree engineers, two-year technicians. You need them in the pipeline,” Menke said. “We all have to compete for talent, and so I would anticipate huge demands out there. The more qualified engineering graduates we can produce the better.”

Greg Paeth is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].