Spokane Journal of Business

Does Spokane lack engineers?

Despite perception, schools offer adequate programs; shortage is national problem

  • Print Article

Last year, Spokane-based RAHCO International went for months without finding a single qualified engineering candidate to hire. It finally recruited one from South Africa.


Spokane headhunter Jeannine Marx, who typically has sought seasoned professionals for her clients, now is being asked to visit college campuses in hopes of snagging a few young engineering students, who she says sometimes now have committed to their future employers by the end of their junior year.


Last fall, Docent Software Inc., a software-development company that had moved here in 1994 from Palo Alto, Calif., moved its headquarters back to the Silicon Valley so it could attract more software engineers and other high-tech workers.


Its easy to see why perceptions abound that Spokane lacks the engineering-school infrastructure necessary to support economic development.


A closer look, however, reveals that Spokane schools currently offer a credible 18 four-year or graduate-level degree programs related to engineering and computer science, that there are plenty of seats available in those programs, and that most of the schools graduates in those programs are recruited by out-of-town companies.


Local educators, employers, and business recruiters say it is a misperception to believe that the engineering education base here is inadequate. But real problems, they say, do exist. One is that schools havent done a good enough job either of attracting young students to their engineering programs or of promoting their programs to local employers. Another is that employers perhaps havent done a good enough job of articulating their needs to educators.


Actually, we have an above-average number of engineering schools for our population, says headhunter Marx, who owns JM Recruiting and often is involved in the communitys efforts to recruit high-tech employers. None of the universities, however, has done a good job of enticing, appealing to, or going after students, especially women and minorities. Theyre not recruiting out of high school.


Washington State University at Spokane, which has brought four masters level engineering programs here in the past decade, has been disappointed with enrollment in those programs. Gonzaga University finally discontinued its masters degree in mechanical engineering last year for lack of demand. That program hadnt had a graduate since 1993.


Gonzagas masters degree in electrical engineering had only three grads last year, compared with 12 two years earlier. We may have to pull the plug on that one, too, says Dennis Horn, Gonzagas new dean of engineering.


Horn, who arrived in Spokane last summer from the Midwest, says that both the softness in enrollment and the shortage of engineering grads are nationalnot just localproblems. He says that engineering is attracting a shrinking share of new students compared with other areas of study.


We dont know why, says Horn. The job prospects are wonderful.


Graduates of engineering programs typically get multiple job offers at starting salaries in the $35,000-to-$50,000-a-year range. The incentive should be there to drive the enrollment up, he says. Its sort of frustrating. Young students and their parents should look at the numbers.


Horn believes, however, that engineering schools may have turned off students by being too rigid in their offerings, and that efforts now under way nationally to modify accreditation standards could give programs more latitude in their curriculums to add instruction in societal and people skills to the heavy emphases on math and science.


We need to offer broader, more attractive programs that encourage innovation, Horn says.


Eastern Washington University, which offers two tracks in a more applied-science form of engineering degree, called engineering technology, has experienced similar problems pulling in students and educating the public about its programs, says Jim Ruch, chairman of EWUs department of technology. EWUs two engineering-technology programs together have graduated about a dozen students a year in recent years, but could produce much more. They easily have the potential to pump out 25 to 30 (grads) a year, says Ruch. People dont know we exist.


Out-of-town employers do.


Last year Boeing came out and did interviews here (for jobs elsewhere), he says. I sent in nine students and eight got job offers. The ninth got an internship that later turned into a job. He says that Boeing hires the programs graduates at salaries in the high $30,000s.


How many graduates stay in Spokane? Of the graduates I had last year, I can only think of three who stayed in the area, says Ruch. The rest went to the West Side.


That again raises the issue of misperceptions. Educators and business sources seem to agree that with the national shortage of engineers, it has become less important where schools are when it comes to pumping out grads, because the recruitment pool from which employers now are fishing is national.


What few students we have (here), the national companies are coming in and paying big salaries to get, says Marx. Theres a huge (engineer) shortage. Its absolutely a national problem.


Companies here can compete, however, by establishing internships with local schools that help to snare students early on, and by offering competitive salaries and challenging opportunities, Marx says. She points to Bernard Daines, the innovative founder of Spokanes Packet Engines Inc., which has hired top-notch people from all over the country. Bernard Daines is a good example of, If you build it, they will come, says Marx.


Also, theres little apparent evidence that any softness in engineering grads here is affecting business recruitment.


We havent run into that, says Peter Kerwien, a business strategist for Washington Water Power Co. who for the last few months has been on loan to the Spokane Area Economic Development Council as a business recruiter. The topic comes up with companies, but its more of a national problem.


Bill Gray, campus dean of WSU at Spokane, says that Spokane-area colleges and universities stand ready to expand or create programs that would help add jobs. He says that WSU and the University of Idaho were ready to cooperate on offering specific programs when Micron Technologies was eyeing the Spokane-Coeur dAlene area for a big plant and when Boeing Co. earlier was considering the Rathdrum Prairie for a wind-tunnel complex. Neither project came about here.


My university takes the economic-development role seriously, says Gray, who adds that WSU brought its masters level engineering programs to Spokane in response to economic-development studies that indicated a need for that.


Still, Gray and other educators say administrators must be cautious about adding more engineering programs when current ones arent drawing strongly.


Weve overcommitted to the engineering programs here, but thats OK, because we know how important they are to economic development, he says.


Gray says he interviewed a host of local business and civic leaders last fall to try and determine why the perception exists that Spokane lacks engineering education, and also to examine what employers are looking for from the academic world. He says he learned both that universities need to listen more closely to what the business community is saying, and that the business community needs to articulate its needs more clearly.


Specifically, Gray says he found that what employers here are clamoring for are non-credit programs tailored to meet specific needsoften fueled by changes in industry and technology. Unfortunately, he says, universities historically are slow to respond to such needs.


Meanwhile, he believes that sometimes when the business community talks about a lack of engineering education here, what it really is talking about is university research. It seems likely that access to researchers to solve troublesome problems, and interactions with faculty, are the most important elements, says Gray. Unfortunately, its translated to the public in terms of not being able to secure engineering graduates.


Says WWPs Kerwien, Its another reason why we shouldnt say things without good data. A lot of that goes on around here. It seems there are misconceptions at all levels, from the universities, to students in high schools, to the general public.Finding candidatesRichard Hanson, president of RAHCO International, says that the national shortage of engineers, in addition to making it difficult to find such employees, also has driven up the salaries employers must pay to attract engineers.


Weve had quite a bit of trouble, says Hanson, whose company makes specialized machines and vehicles for the mining, canal building, and environmental industries worldwide. We went three or four months last summer without finding a single candidate that was qualified. It has been quite a struggle and we expect it to stay that way.


Hanson says he has talked with executives at other companies and they were all bemoaning the fact that they had a lot of jobs but no candidates. They also were concerned about the shortages effects on salaries, he says.


He says that the Pacific Northwests vibrant economy has boosted starting engineers salaries well above the national average. That forces up the salaries of everybody you have, he says. The shortage of engineers has resulted in an overall boost in our salary outlays.


RAHCO, Hanson says, looks for engineers in Spokane first, then the Tri-Cities, Portland, and Seattle markets, followed by Montana. If that doesnt work, then we go further east to Detroit and Milwaukee, he says. We dont recruit out of California at allpeople dont stick from there. Weve had zero success keeping people we recruit out of California.More aggressive schoolsGonzagas Horn says that he hopes to make engineering programs more visible both within high schools and within the business community, and, toward that end, plans visits in both arenas.


Gonzaga already has made some headway. This school year, a Boeing engineer has moved to Spokane for the academic year to be part of the Gonzaga engineering schools faculty. While remaining a Boeing employee, he is expected to help Gonzaga and its students understand more about the needs of industry, and help Boeing understand more about the current educational process.


RAHCOs Hanson suggests that colleges should spend more time promoting engineering among teen-agers.


The problem starts back at high school, or even in grade school, he says. You can easily pop out of high school with none of the prerequisites needed to get into engineering school. The colleges cant do much about it if the high schools dont plant the seed.

  • Paul Read

  • Follow RSS feed for Paul Read

Read More

Sign up for our E-mail updates

including the
Morning Edition

Join our list