April 1, 2017
Have you ever heard of an engineering technology degree? If not, you’re not alone. According to a report by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), nearly 30% of employers of engineering technicians and technologists had never heard of engineering technology education, and 33% didn’t know the difference between work performed by engineers and work performed by engineering technologists.
We write a lot about what engineering technology providers are doing to “democratize” design engineering tools, which is just a fancy way of saying software and hardware should be easier to use, have affordable options for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and generally be accessible to more people. There are many reasons democratization is important. The state of the art in engineering design technology has evolved so quickly that many people aren’t aware of what is now possible with 3D design, simulation, optimization and rendering paired with high-performance computing. If more people used the latest tools and processes, it could spark new innovations, result in better products and help solve difficult problems in society.
Downstream from design, manufacturing is being disrupted by new technologies as well—from the connected automation of the industrial Internet of Things to more widespread use of additive and hybrid manufacturing. More skilled employees are always needed to realize the promise of the factory of the future, and democratization expands the pool of those prospective employees.
A Two-Pronged Approach
The responsibility for widening the playing field doesn’t just rest with software and hardware companies making their tools easier to access. The people using them need to get the proper education and training to make the most out of the tools available. There are plenty of on-the-job training opportunities for design engineers (see page 17), but the NAE report, “Engineering Technology Education in the United States” (nae.edu/165760.aspx) sheds light on another opportunity to boost the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) job pool.
The NAE report distinguishes engineering technologists from engineers with a comparison: “If engineers are viewed as being responsible for designing the nation’s technological systems, engineering technicians and technologists are those who help build and keep those systems running.” It further distinguishes technicians as those with two-year degrees from engineering technologists who have four-year degrees. Described another way: Engineers learn the concepts and mathematics behind engineering design, while technologists learn how to practically apply technology tools to those designs. In 2014, there were nearly 94,000 four-year engineering degrees and less than 18,000 four-year engineering technology degrees awarded in the U.S., according to the report.
Democratize Engineering Education
Efforts to boost STEM enrollments should extend to engineering technology degrees. There will always be a certain number of high school students who are thrilled to participate in FIRST Robotics and other hands-on programs, but are too intimidated by the advanced mathematics and theoretical study required to achieve an engineering degree. Increasing the amount of entry-level job candidates with engineering technology degrees would go a long way toward filling the need for high-tech skills in product development and manufacturing today.
But if employers aren’t familiar with engineering technology, or what an engineering technologist does, colleges and universities will have a hard time drumming up enrollment. To boost the profile of engineering technologists, the NAE report calls for the engineering technology education community to make the field’s value more evident to K-12 teachers, students and parents, as well as to employers. It further suggests that the National Science Foundation should consider funding research on engineering technology to understand why black students graduate at higher rates from engineering technology programs than from engineering programs, why women are less-engaged in engineering technology than engineering and why only 12% of engineering technologists have a four-year degree in engineering technology, while 39% of them have engineering degrees.