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Author: Katharine G. Frase, Ronald M. Latanision, and Greg Pearson
The vitality of the innovation economy in the United States depends on the availability of a highly educated technical workforce. A key component of this workforce consists of engineers, engineering technicians, and engineering technologists. Much has been written about the role of engineers, their academic preparation, and their value to the nation. The purpose of this report is to shed light on the relatively underappreciated roles and contributions of engineering technicians and technologists. Very abstractly, if engineers are viewed as being responsible for designing the nation’s technological systems, then engineering technicians and technologists are the ones who help build and keep those systems running.
Unlike the much better known field of engineering, engineering technology (ET) is unfamiliar to most Americans and goes unmentioned in most policy discussions about the US technical workforce. This despite the fact that workers in this field play an important role in supporting the nation’s infrastructure and capacity for innovation.
The emergence of ET as an academic discipline can be traced to the mid-1950s, when curricula in traditional engineering programs began to focus more heavily on advanced science and mathematics coursework. The resulting de-emphasis on student hands-on laboratory work was a key factor in establishment of the first 2-year (associate’s degree) ET programs, which were designed to ensure that the engineering team included individuals skilled in application as well as theory (Henninger 1959). Four-year (bachelor’s degree) ET programs, which first appeared in the 1960s, also had a distinct focus on application.
The number of degrees awarded in engineering technology, while smaller than in engineering, is substantial. In 2014 there were 17,915 graduates with 4-year ET degrees and 34,638 graduates with 2-year ET degrees in the United States, according to the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). By comparison, in that same year, there were 93,950 graduates of 4-year engineering programs and 4,409 graduates with 2-year engineering degrees. In 2014, US schools, mostly community colleges, awarded 49,217 subassociate’s-degree certificates in ET.
In 2013 the total stock of those with 4-year ET degrees was estimated to be about 480,000, and the stock of those with 4-year degrees in engineering was a little over 5 million. There are no data on the stock of those with 2-year degrees in either ET or engineering. Because not all those with degrees in a particular field end up working in that field, another useful metric is the number of people employed in ET, regardless of their educational background. By this measure, there were about 400,000 ET workers in the United States in 2013.
In our report, we use the term “technologist” to refer to a person with a 4-year degree in engineering technology or with a 4-year degree in another subject whom the federal government considers to be working as a technician or technologist.1 We define a “technician” as a person with a 2-year ET degree or someone without a 4-year degree whom the federal government classifies as working as a technician or technologist. Of the roughly 400,000 people employed in ET in 2013, we estimate the vast majority, about 80 percent, were working as engineering technicians.
The work of engineering technologists has been described by drawing comparisons to engineering. One model, developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (figure 1), sees the jobs of engineering technologist and engineer as falling along a continuum. It is characterized at one end (engineering technology) by work involving distribution and sales; operation, service, and maintenance; and production engineering; and at the other (engineering) by work emphasizing theory, analysis, and complex design. In this model, a number of work-related activities can be performed by both engineers and technologists.
There is no widely accepted job description for an engineering technician. However, the International Engineering Alliance (IEA 2014, pp. 13–14), which manages mutual accreditation recognition agreements among signatory countries for engineers, engineering technologists, and engineering technicians, offers this description:
The roles of engineering technicians involve them in the implementation of proven techniques and procedures to the solution of practical problems. They carry a measure of supervisory and technical responsibility and are competent to exercise creative aptitudes and skills within defined fields of technology, initially under the guidance of engineering practitioners with appropriate experience. Engineering technicians contribute to the design, development, manufacture, commissioning, operation and maintenance of products, equipment, processes and services.
Statement of Task
To shed light on the status, role, and needs of ET education in the United States, the National Academy of Engineering, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), assembled a 14-member study committee to examine these issues. The committee’s statement of task had the following objectives:
Objective 1: Review the status and history of the production and employment of engineering technologists and technicians in the United States. Such a review should address not only the number and discipline focus of graduates from engineering technology programs but also their demographic characteristics (race, gender, socioeconomic status), academic preparation (e.g., participation in career and technical education programs, experience with K–12 engineering coursework), and distribution by sector, job role/category, and geographic region.
Objective 2: Gather available data and explore private and public sector employer perceptions regarding the adequacy of the supply of engineering technologists and technicians as well as the appropriateness of the knowledge and skills they bring to the workplace.
Objective 3: Describe the characteristics of US engineering technology education programs related to such things as curriculum and faculty professional development; outreach to/partnerships with K–12 schools, industry, and other organizations; and communication and collaboration with engineering education programs.
The committee met four times over a roughly 2-year period. Data gathering for the project included an information-gathering workshop in December 2014; a commissioned review of ET-related federal education and occupational statistics; two surveys, one of ET educators and the other of employers of engineering technicians and technologists; and a literature review. The committee’s full report presents and analyzes these data in detail and includes findings and recommendations in four areas:
Findings and Recommendations Related to the Nature of ET Education
From the perspectives of workforce and education policy in the United States, there appears to be little awareness of ET as a field of study or a category of employment. As just one example, 30 percent of almost 250 respondents to our employer survey had never heard of the field of ET education; this lack of awareness rose to almost 50 percent for smaller employers. Even among respondents who indicated an awareness of ET, one third said they did not know the difference between work performed by engineers and work performed by engineering technologists. These data can be explained by a combination of factors, including ET’s challenges with branding and marketing; curricula and worker skills that overlap with those of engineering; and gaps in research and data collection that make it difficult to determine how differences between the two fields affect employment opportunities and benefit employers.
Lack of awareness of ET extends into the K–12 education system, where many young people are first exposed to possible career paths. The committee found little evidence of formal outreach or communication to K–12 teachers, students, or students’ parents concerning ET and its connection to postsecondary education and employment.
Recommendation 1: Within academia, it is critical for leaders of 2- and 4-year ET programs to engage more meaningfully in discussion with leaders in postsecondary engineering education about the similarities and differences between the two variants of engineering and how they might complement one another while serving the interests of a diverse student population. This engagement can be accomplished in dialogue within and between individual institutions; through work by discipline-based and affinity engineering professional societies; and by leaders in the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), such as the Engineering Technology Council, the Engineering Deans Council, and the Corporate Member Council.
Recommendation 2: The ET education community should consider ways to make the field’s value proposition more evident to K–12 teachers, students, and students’ parents, as well as to employers. Such an effort might include new messaging developed in collaboration with a qualified public relations firm and based on data from market research on student and employer knowledge and perceptions of ET. The research might test the appeal and believability of rebranding ET as “applied engineering” or other appropriate names identified by the market research. Attention also should be paid to ways to reduce confusion associated with the term “engineering technology” and to simplifying degree nomenclature. To encourage collaboration and avoid duplication, plans for any major new outreach should be communicated with appropriate leadership in the engineering education community, such as the ASEE Engineering Deans Council and Engineering Technology Council.
Findings Related to Supply and Demand
The committee examined supply and demand in the ET workforce. This task was complicated both by the definitional confusion surrounding the field and by certain gaps in data collected by the federal government. Even with these limitations, the committee found no clear indication of either a shortage or a surplus of engineering technicians or technologists. This does not preclude the possibility of market imbalances in certain geographic areas. Empirical data do show a significant greying of the ET workforce, which suggests to some that these skills may well be needed in greater numbers in the future. However, labor economists (e.g., Freeman 2007) have found that an aging workforce is often an indication of business expectations of weak future demand.
Findings and Recommendations Related to Educational and Employment Pathways
Compared with engineering, ET education programs, particularly at the 2-year level, are more attractive to older students and students currently underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In contrast to the situation for most college graduates, who are in their early 20s, more than one quarter of graduates with 4-year ET degrees are older than 35. The proportion of adults enrolling in 2-year programs may be even higher.
The share of students earning 4-year degrees in ET that is black is almost three times the share of students earning 4-year degrees in engineering (10.7 percent versus 3.8 percent). Blacks account for more than 11 percent of those earning 2-year degrees and more than 17 percent of those earning certificates in ET; in engineering, the proportion earning 2-year degrees is slightly less than 6 percent. Women earn almost 20 percent of 4-year degrees in engineering but just 12 percent of 2- and 4-year ET degrees.
Recommendation 3: Research is needed to understand why certain segments of the population graduate at higher frequencies from ET programs than they do from engineering programs and why women are even less engaged in ET than they are in engineering. Understanding the reasons for these preferences and trends may allow programs in both domains of engineering to better attract and retain more diverse student populations. NSF should consider funding research on factors affecting matriculation, retention, and graduation in ET. The research might consider, among other factors, socioeconomic issues, such as the need for some students to work while attending school; issues related to the adequacy of secondary school preparation in mathematics and science; the presence and nature of mentoring, peer and parental support, career counseling, and other mechanisms known to increase enrollment and retention of women and underrepresented groups in STEM fields; and the nature of curricular differences between 2- and 4-year ET programs and between 4-year ET and 4-year engineering programs.
The committee found that the connection between an ET education and the ET workforce is fairly weak. Those with ET degrees work in a broad range of occupations, and those employed as engineering technologists have a diverse degree background. For instance, just 12 percent of technologists have a 4-year degree in ET, according to the National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG). The largest share of technologists, 39 percent according to NSCG, has degrees in engineering; smaller, but still significant, shares have degrees in business/management or the life sciences.
The relatively small salary premium for technologists, as compared with technicians, may be reducing incentives for entry into 4-year ET programs as well as tamping down overall interest in technologist jobs. Conversely, the relatively high salary potential of technician-level jobs may serve to increase interest in these jobs and educational pathways to them. Although salary growth for both types of worker has been flat over the past 40 years (remaining at an average of about $50,000 annually, in 2015 dollars), average real wages for engineers have risen 23 percent, from $70,000 to $86,000 annually.
Recommendation 4: Research is needed to better understand the reasons for the apparent loose coupling of degree attainment and employment in engineering technology. Such research might consider how factors like the salary differential between ET and engineering jobs and lack of ET wage growth may be influencing students’ academic and career choices. These and related questions might be addressed in studies supported by NSF or by revisions in relevant survey instruments administered by NSF, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Findings and Recommendation Related to Data Collection and Analysis
There are significant, data-related limitations in the ability to understand differences in degree histories, specific job attributes, and educational and employment choices of those working as engineering technicians and technologists. This is particularly an issue for tracking of 2-year degrees and for the technician workforce.
For example, ET degree data reported through IPEDS currently use a coding scheme that includes field and subfield titles that do not contain the term “engineering technology.” And because of confusion about degree types within engineering-related fields, other datasets such as the American Community Survey (ACS) and NSCG, which rely on self-reports by individual survey participants, may include misclassifications. For instance, some individuals with degrees in ET may report that they have a degree in engineering and therefore be counted as engineering-degree recipients.
Despite the popularity of community colleges and the large number of 2-year degrees and certificates awarded by these institutions, there are gaps in understanding of how these types of credentials relate to further education or employment in ET. For instance, none of the four federal datasets used in our report (ACS, Current Population Survey [CPS], Occupational Employment Statistics [OES], and NSCG) that capture occupational information tally technician- and technologist-level workers separately. As noted, the committee estimated the number of employed technicians by pulling out workers who have a 2-year degree but not a 4-year degree. But this approach has shortcomings, including the possibility that someone with a 2-year degree may have risen through the ranks to assume responsibilities consistent with someone with a 4-year degree in ET or engineering. Conversely, someone we counted as a technologist, because the person had a 4-year degree, may have earned that degree in a field unrelated to ET but ended up doing ET-related work after earning one or more certificates or a 2-year degree in the field, or because of relevant on-the-job training.
An underlying problem with ET employment data relates to the coding process, in this case the System of Occupational Classification (SOC). ACS, CPS, and OES all use the SOC to assign individuals to specific job types. But the SOC currently does not provide separate job descriptions for technicians and technologists, lumping them all into a category called “engineering technicians, except drafters.” An interagency work group revising the SOC is considering whether to create separate occupational categories for ET technicians and technologists.
Recommendation 5: The National Center for Education Statistics should consider collecting more comprehensive survey data on individuals participating in sub-baccalaureate postsecondary education. In addition, existing nationally representative surveys, such as ACS, CPS, and NSCG, should consider collecting more detailed information from 4-year degree holders and add questions pertaining to sub-baccalaureate populations, as appropriate. ACS and NSCG, which rely on self-reported data, might consider including prompts in their survey instruments to encourage more accurate reporting of degree information from ET degree holders.
A Final Word
Engineering technologists and technicians are an important, if overlooked, segment of the nation’s STEM workforce. The field of ET has strong historical connections to traditional engineering and shares the same general sensibility toward technical problem solving. At the same time, its pedigree is rooted in application-focused and hands-on learning, perhaps to a greater extent than in engineering. We hope this report spurs greater understanding and further exploration of ET education and of the contributions of workers with ET-related skills.
ASME [American Society of Manufacturing Engineers]. 2012. Pathways to careers in mechanical engineering. Unpublished.
Freeman RB. 2007. Is a great labor shortage coming? Replacement demand in the global economy. In: Reshaping the American Workforce in a Changing Economy. Holzer H, Nightingale DS, eds. Washington: Urban Institute Press.
Henninger GR. 1959. The Technical Institute in America. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company.
IEA [International Engineering Alliance]. 2014. International Engineering Alliance: Educational Accords. Washington Accord 1989. Sydney Accord 2001. Dublin Accord 2002. Available at www.ieagreements.org/Rules_and_Procedures.pdf?5889.