Utah wants engineers. Early this year, the presidents of the state's universities and other state officials announced the formation of the "Utah Engineering Network," an organization dedicated to locating Utah engineers who have left for greener employment pastures elsewhere. The network's objective is to entice them into returning to their native state.
I don't have anything against the network. If Utah is to develop a high-tech environment that attracts corresponding industry, which would give a much-needed boost to our economy, then more power to the network's efforts to bring engineers here.But I can't help seeing the irony.
Utah is out beating the bushes for engineers while the state's oldest engineering program, the University of Utah civil engineering department, which dates back to 1890, is struggling for its very existence.
And it just isn't civil engineering that has fallen on hard times. The U. shut down its industrial engineering program because of underfunding. The entire engineering college ranks 13th in undergraduate funding among 13 comparable, out-of-state universities. It needs $1 million to bring it up to the 12th position.
Doesn't it seem ironic that Utah leaders are trying, in such a high-profile way, to raid other states of engineers while engineering education fights for every dollar? I asked a U. engineering administrator.
He responded by explaining that those state leaders involved in economic developments efforts, who see Utah's crucial need for more engineers, aren't the same ones who decide education funding.
I already understood that, so I replied, "But it's still the same state."
He nodded, laughing.
I don't think my response is as simplistic as it may sound. If Utah is to continue to live up to its PR tag a "pretty, great state," then our leaders, our representatives, are going to have to make some pretty, great - albeit tough - decisions that look at the state as a whole. Are we willing to do what's necessary to turn the state into the high-tech center that we claim we want to be?
Utah can't become a high-tech center by chopping away at technology's very root - education.
Students with an eye on an engineering career want a first-rate education and that means a complete program.
Often, in the first two years of college, engineering students take a series of basic classes before settling on a specialty. What student, if given a choice, would select a school that didn't offer the complete range of necessary courses?
For financial reasons, some would have to stay close to home, no matter what. Others, however, would earn their degrees in another state, and they would be less likely to return upon graduation, thus becoming new candidates to be enticed back to Utah by the network.
But the chances of them returning wouldn't be very good. A National Science Foundation study reports a nationwide engineer shortage that will grow to 45,000 by 1996; the demand will exceed the supply by 700,000 in 2010.
If such a shortage occurred, competition for engineers would be fierce. However, if history repeats itself, as it usually does, students looking for attractive, profitable careers will begin turning to engineering in increasing numbers. States with engineering education, viable in all areas, will have an advantage.
None of this, by the way, should be construed as meaning that the U. is the only logical place for state-supported engineering education. Utah State University has a strong engineering program, but it too has had its lean budget years.
Probably, the state needs two publicly supported engineering schools, strong in all specialties, if Utah ever hopes to compete effectively in national and international markets. However, if engineering education is to be altered, then the change needs to come from a conscious decision by the State Board of Regents, not from continual underfunding that eventually bleeds programs to death.