Science is more than theory and lecture. Science is fun. Science is hands-on. Science is…
Some careers that are vanishing come as no surprise, thanks to technology: Newspaper reporters. Postal workers. Librarians. Lumberjacks. Others are a bit unexpected: Fast-food cooks? Flight attendants? Retail cashiers? Telemarketers? Really?
Nowhere on the various lists are engineers.
In fact, says Promod Vohra, dean of the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, more engineers are needed – perhaps as many as 500,000 in this region alone by 2025 to keep pace with new ideas, expanding companies and waves of baby boomer retirements.
That’s more than eight times the number of engineering degrees awarded each year in the United States. India and China, on the other hand, are graduating 1 million annually.
Want more incentive? Seven of America’s 10 highest-paying bachelor’s degrees are in engineering. Average salaries for engineers are $90,000; the unemployment rate for engineers is half of the rate for other professions.
“As science advances, as technology advances, there is a need for new solutions, and these solutions need to be provided by engineers,” Vohra says. “No country can survive without innovation, creation of new products and reengineering of the current processes. Engineers are the paradigm.”
Consider it vital to a healthy economy, he says.
Modern consumers continue to demand the latest and greatest in everything, Vohra says, including fuel-efficient cars and ever-more-powerful smartphones. Every new gizmo rolled out by Apple and other tech giants quickly opens new markets and creates new streams of wealth.
Proudly standing behind it all are the engineers who conceptualize, design, create and sustain the future through products and solutions to real-life problems.
Bob Guirl, director of strategy and development for Electrical Systems at UTC Aerospace Systems in Rockford, counts his company among those that need a steady supply of fresh talent.
“One reason for the durability of engineering careers is that STEM skills can be broadly applied, even beyond traditional ‘STEM careers’ When science, technology, engineering and math and engineering are taught well, they build students’ curiosity of how the world works and their intellectual capability to create new products and processes that continually improve the current condition,” says Guirl, whose company is the largest aerospace systems supplier in the world.
“The STEM skillset can be applied to various fields: management, finance, IT, medicine, politics – the list is nearly endless. All rely on an ability to design, analyze, test and continually improve,” he adds. “We need these skills in our northern Illinois region; they drive progress.”
Vohra and his colleagues in academia understand their critical marching orders.
“We as a community – as stakeholders – need to make sure that we collectively educate our young people, nurture their young minds and give them the information to make them successful in their careers,” he says. “We must create a community of excellence and grow our own talent.”
He routinely gives high school students five good reasons to enroll in his college.
“Engineering pays well. Engineers are in demand. It’s an exciting field – you’re always working on tomorrow’s problems, not today’s. It provides a social perception of being intelligent and a contributing member of society,” he says. “And it’s a globally portable field: A degree earned in one country is acceptable in all parts of the world.”
Starting next fall, they can begin work to earn bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees from NIU without leaving the campus of Rock Valley College.
“We see the RVC-NIU collaboration as an ideal way to help our region grow a local STEM workforce that is prepared both academically and technically through hands-on experience and industry internships and mentoring,” Guirl says.
“The students get visibility into the real world, so they can adjust within the field, if necessary, while they’re still in school, and enter the workforce prepared and enthused about their chosen career,” he adds. “They also have the ability to earn while they learn, without leaving Rockford.”
NIU’s dean is equally as excited and optimistic.
“We have to create a community of excellence and grow our own talent,” Vohra says. “We have to make a positive impact in our communities.”
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Shawn Wade spent three years working on an assembly line in Rockton, a small town northwest of Rockford.
His shifts were long – 10 or 11 hours a day, five or more days a week – but the company’s future seemed bright.
“They had four years of record sales in a row. Everything was good. But after the fourth year, they didn’t get the sales they expected, and they started laying people off,” Wade says. “I was one of the lower men on the totem pole. I got cut.”
Fortunately, those three years of manual labor, standing on a hard, concrete floor, had offered plenty of time to think.
“I realized I was smarter than this,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘I need to get paid for using my brain instead of my body so much.’ ”
Although his company helped its employees pay for college tuition, few could take advantage of the program while also working up to 65 hours a week and raising families.
Part of Wade’s severance package included money for a year of higher education, however. “I said, ‘Well, there’s no time like now.’ I was laid off in April and started courses at Rock Valley in June.”
With no distinct path in mind, he took an online test that determines career aptitude. The computer suggested engineering.
“I started reading about it, and thinking about it more, and it actually made a ton of sense,” he says. “I’ve always been into tinkering, and taking things apart and figuring out how they work. I’ve been racing BMX since I was 15, and I always did my own bike repairs. I’m just really interested in how things work.”
He switched his course of study from the general associate degree to RVC’s associate degree in Engineering Science. The longtime “2+2” agreement between the two schools meant he could easily continue into NIU’s program were he willing to commute to DeKalb.
One problem, though. He wasn’t.
“I’m going to be 30 in November. I have a wife and a 10-year-old daughter, and I own my home,” he says. “I can’t relocate. I can’t move into a dorm. I can’t drive back and forth to DeKalb. It wouldn’t be possible.”
Eighteen months into his RVC studies, he found an internship at SPX FLOW, Inc. in Rockford, where he’s still working as a drafter. Engineers bring him designs, he enters them into the computer, engineers mark up the prints with red pens, he makes changes in the computer and then both sign off.
His two-year degree is good enough to continue doing that, so Wade made plans to halt his higher education when he completed those requirements next spring.
That’s not to say he didn’t dream of pursuing the life of professional licensed engineer. He wanted to design things. Life just didn’t permit it.
But an Aug. 24 post on the WIFR-Channel 23 Facebook page, one about the new NIU-RVC Engineering Program, changed everything.
“This is actually a monumental announcement that will greatly affect me,” Wade wrote in a comment. “This program will now make it possible for me to get my bachelor’s. Great news.”
And what will that mean for his family?
“The pay increase between being a drafter and an entry-level engineer is probably 20 grand a year. It’s huge,” he says. “And being a drafter is a cap. Being an engineer, you can go to being a design engineer to being a senior design engineer. You have the potential to go up and up and up.”
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Wade, obviously, is sold on his career choice.
“I couldn’t fathom a world that doesn’t have engineers,” he says. “Pretty much everything you can think of that’s been manmade has been touched by an engineer at some point. If you look at a Bic pen, it took a material engineer to figure out what plastic they wanted to use, how thick the wall for the tube needed to be, the diameter of the tube … a ton of engineering goes into it.”
“We want students to understand that the time and money they spend in college can pay off for them both monetarily and through an exciting career,” Guirl says. “That higher wage structure can also help build a stronger, more affluent region, which benefits us all.”
Vohra likes to point out that engineering is not restricted to the design and construction of heavy equipment – “The perception of us just being a cars-and-trucks field is not adequate,” he says – nor is the profession limited to males.
Some of engineering’s most important contributions include sophisticated tools used in delicate cancer surgeries, he says, as well as machines that cancel noise in incubators for newborns, equipment to control tremors in Parkinson’s patients and devices that treat sleep apnea.
All bear a social relevance that attracts women and others to the field, the dean says.
“Our greatest potential is to bring women and minorities into engineering,” he says. “We want these young minds to be powered by knowledge and mentored by people in the field so they don’t lose their way during the academic progress.”
Vohra points to Women Engineers Matter, which facilitates female faculty collaboration, women alumni and corporate mentors for each female student and more.
He also cites NIU’s E-PRIDE Mentorship Program (Engineering-Placement, Retention, Internship, Diversity, Engagement) that pairs freshmen and sophomores or new transfers with highly active junior or senior students in good standing. The program also teams junior and senior students who willingly mentor lower-division students will alumni or corporate mentors.
Adding alumni and corporate partners to the mix – a key component to the NIU-RVC Engineering Program as well – provides a sharp illustration of NIU President Doug Baker’s “triangle strategy” of students, faculty and the outside world.
NIU engineering graduates also glimpse their future through internships where they come to understand job responsibilities and expectation.
UTC Aerospace Systems, as well as Rockford-based Woodward Inc., will offer those hands-on learning opportunities in their facilities and labs.
“The employers get visibility to high-performing students and the chance to mentor and groom a potential future employee from this region,” Guirl says. “Our business has historically recruited heavily from the region and from Big 10 engineering schools because we recognize that students from the Midwest tend to stay in the Midwest, and this program can help us retain strong, local technical employees.”
And the workload isn’t shrinking.
“Generally speaking, new aircraft require more electrical power than the models they’re replacing – for new, more-electric aircraft, as well as for traditionally designed aircraft that require ever-expanding levels of electrical power,” he says. “Pushing that envelope and improving electric power capabilities for our customers require talented electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and manufacturing technology, which are all degrees that are part of the RVC-NIU Engineering Program.”