By Tom Still

MADISON – If you want to know why engineering appears once
again on the rise as a career choice, just check out Education News and its
“Career Path” database for average salaries for engineers.

Several leading categories of engineers – biomedical, civil,
computer, electrical, mechanical and software – show Wisconsin salaries well
above the state’s private-sector salary average. Those average salaries ranged
from $54,600 for a civil engineer to $76,500 for a biomedical engineer.

Reasons include a relatively long slide in the supply
of engineering graduates, which appears to have reversely itself nationally in
recent years, and an increase in the demand for engineers in many
sectors of the modern economy.

At the UW-Madison College of Engineering, the state’s
largest engineering school, the past few years have seen a dramatic rise in the
number of engineering students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. There
were about 4,850 students enrolled in the fall of 2014, which exceeded what the
college predicted for the fall of 2015.

The enrollment turnaround began in the 2009-10 academic year
and has continued ever since, with the most rapid increases in the past three

The upward swing has taken place despite “differential
tuition” (it costs more to attend the engineering school overall than some
other UW-Madison programs), more complicated admission policies and with no net
increase in the number of faculty within the college.

Much of the credit for the surge in engineering interest
goes to the economy.

Engineering has become a hot career in a world where some of
the “grand challenges” involve finding solutions for energy production and
storage, providing clean water, managing climate change, developing new drugs,
improving transportation systems, exploring new types of materials and finding
ways to better manage urban populations and their needs. Engineers are usually
at the center of finding solutions to those problems.

Wisconsin employers are expected to hire more engineers. A
recent report by Georgetown University noted that, by 2020, demand in
Wisconsin’s professional, scientific and technical services sectors will
increase by 14,890 jobs from 127,510 in 2010 to 142,400 in 2020. That’s a 12
percent increase.

Within engineering itself, the U.S. Labor Department’s
Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the demand for biomedical, environmental,
civil and petroleum engineers will grow by double digits by 2022.

Some credit also rests with the overall quality of the
programs at Wisconsin’s major engineering schools, which also include UW-Stout,
UW-Milwaukee, UW-Platteville, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Marquette

For example: UW-Madison ranks high in some key national
rankings: third in nuclear engineering, sixth in chemical engineering, sixth in
online degree programs, 10th in undergraduate industrial and manufacturing
engineering, and 14th overall in the most recent U.S. News & World
Best College Rankings. It was ranked no less than 23rd in
any major program.

That helps to explain why the college attracted a $25
million gift in mid-2014 from The Grainger Foundation, which will help create
an endowment for professorships, faculty scholar awards and post-doctoral
fellowships. It will also support an interdisciplinary approach – reflected
throughout much of engineering today – that will lead to more collaboration in
areas such as materials and manufacturing, energy and consumer goods and health

Finally, some credit for the engineering spike goes to the
success of efforts to produce more students who are interested in science,
technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.

The STEM revolution in schools – starting in elementary
schools and ranging through the high school years – has been a persistent
effort. Not only are educators themselves involved, but often business people
who recognize the nation must produce more STEM graduates to meet emerging
workforce needs. The magazine Science reported in mid-2014 that the
United States appears to be on pace to meet the Obama administration’s goal of
producing more college graduates in STEM fields.

While not all STEM graduates wind up in jobs in their chosen
fields, economists and others say the need for science-literate workers in
today’s economy is intense.

“The reward for an engineering degree is better career
success,” said James Brown, executive director of the Washington, D.C., based
STEM Education Coalition. “There are no guarantees in this economy, but you
know you’re going to do better if you’re in a STEM field than any other field.”

With a $300-million cut in the UW System’s budget proposed
for the next two years, the Wisconsin Legislature may consider what that will
mean to the state’s employers – especially those expecting to hire engineers
and other STEM graduates in coming years.  Wisconsin engineering schools
are helping fill the economy’s demand for talent. The challenge is ensuring
those schools have the resources to satisfy student interest and business