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Author: Wm. A. Wulf and E. Gail de Planque
The United States is one of the world’s leaders in technology and innovation, a position it owes largely to the strength of its engineering and technical workforce. However, that workforce faces increasing challenges, both internal and external in nature, that threaten our nation’s preeminent position. The external challenges are well known, and they face every company: the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, the rapid pace of change, and the global distribution of markets. The internal challenges relate to the very makeup of our engineering workforce and in many ways are more difficult to address.
The U.S. engineering workforce is predominantly white male and is aging rapidly. Over the last 15 years, the total number of individuals choosing engineering studies and careers has been decreasing. Of those students who initially choose engineering coursework, even fewer actually graduate with engineering degrees. This decline in the number of students in the engineering pipeline, coupled with increasing rates of retirement among engineers trained in the early 1960s, points to a potential resource crisis. Projected market demands and current enrollment trends suggest that the United States may experience a serious shortfall in the number of engineers needed to fill jobs within the next decade. This need not be as it is!
At first glance, our nation seems to have an untapped resource ready to respond to this need -- more than half our population is female, and more girls than boys graduate from high school and enter college. Unfortunately, fewer than 20 percent of the college students who choose to study engineering are female. And beyond college the numbers are worse. There are proportionately fewer women in engineering than in all other scientific or technical fields, and women constitute less than nine percent of the engineering workforce. This is unacceptable.
For the United States to remain competitive in a global, technological society, the country as a whole must take serious steps to create a diverse, well-trained, and multicultural workforce. Of specific concern is our ability to "engineer well" without a workforce that reflects the face of America as well as that of global markets. The ability to attract young women is a significant challenge faced by the engineering community, specifically by those corporations with a stake in the nation’s technological future.
In order to address this issue, the NAE initiated the Celebration of Women in Engineering (CWE) project. Key individuals from academia, industry, engineering-related societies, and educational support organizations -- noted for their active roles in encouraging women to pursue math, science, and engineering fields -- were solicited to participate on the steering committee for this project. Once assembled, the committee noted that many initiatives related to women in engineering have been implemented in both the public and private sectors, and yet significant change in the workforce has remained elusive. The committee felt that new national initiatives -- with strong corporate involvement -- would be required before any effective change could occur. To guide its efforts, the steering committee defined three goals: