Is Engineering the New Liberal Arts Degree?

It’s no secret that STEM fields are enjoying priority status for new high school graduates. While employment statistics for business administration graduates have remained fairly stagnant and liberal arts graduates have lagged behind their counterparts in the sciences, engineering graduates have an unemployment rate of just 2 percent, according to data analysts with the National Science Foundation.

 

Civil engineers are projected to be in great demand over the next decade as businesses and municipalities race to upgrade aging infrastructures. Severe weather over the past ten years, including hurricanes, super-storms and major blizzards, has made the need for better infrastructure readily apparent. In some regions, gas, water and sewerage systems are more than a century old, and these aging systems will need work. For civil engineers, that means having an unprecedented opportunity not only to find work but to have their pick of plum jobs as the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a nearly 20 percent growth rate for civil engineers over the next five years. These careers also come with built-in job satisfaction, too – who wouldn’t want to play a part in rebuilding New York City for the next century?

 

The news is similarly good for environmental, nuclear and petroleum engineers, say analysts with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As additional energy sources and improved petroleum extraction processes change how the country is fueled, the environmental impacts of those changes must also be managed. Engineers in these fields can look forward to being very much in demand.

 

While part of the reason for the change is an upswing in opportunities in STEM fields, including computing and biomechanical engineering, there’s another factor at work: versatility. An engineer can learn to do many tasks, but the reverse isn’t always true. As in many scientific and technical fields, it’s easier for an engineer to become an artist than for an artist to become an engineer. That isn’t due to the relative value of art or engineering, both of which are essential to a healthy society, but to the specialized knowledge these fields require. That’s fueling a mass migration into engineering schools.

 

However good the news is on a grand scale for engineers, being in demand doesn’t always mean having your pick of job opportunities. Engineers who want to take advantage of this wide range of opportunities should prepare now by incorporating other experience and coursework into their degree programs.

 

That versatility has led some employment analysts to call engineering the new liberal arts degree, an educational foundation on which students can build toward specialization.  While that may be true to the original spirit of a liberal arts degree, it could minimize what’s required for an engineer to specialize. The scope of what students could choose to learn in their engineering coursework is so broad that a BS in engineering is now seen as a beginning, not an end point. For graduates, an entry-level degree may not be enough to establish credibility; for employers, a bachelor’s degree could mean another year or two of training to prepare a new employee for his or her role.

 

The good news is that preparation is often fairly painless, especially as another traditional idea about education is making a comeback with apprenticeships and mentor programs. Increasingly, employers are looking for internship experience or work skills that dovetail with a student’s primary coursework. Engineering school graduates who have worked to develop their business acumen or honed their inter-personal skills will have the edge over those who have only degrees to show for their four or five years of education.

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