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Public Works Engineering: Diversity a cure for shortage?

Uchenna O. Udemezue

Director of Engineering & Transportation

City of San Leandro, California

Member, APWA Diversity Committee

APWA, like many other professional organizations, recognizes the need and benefits of having a diverse membership that represents the community which it serves. To promote the goal of diversity, APWA has instituted a Diversity Committee whose members are very passionate and dedicated to achieving its mission. The organization’s success in reaching its diversity goals will be limited, to a great extent, by the pool of public works employees from which it can draw. If the workforce is not diverse it follows that the organization will not be diverse, try as it may. Unless APWA resorts to the ridiculous notion of exclusively recruiting and admitting women and underrepresented minorities at the sole expense and exclusion of white public works employees, reaching a significant diversity goal will remain a lofty dream, at best. Achieving workforce diversity, in turn, is dependent on the availability of a diverse pool of potential and qualified candidates.

It would follow then that the foundation for building a diverse membership in APWA is ensuring the availability of a diverse pool of qualified candidates in all public works-related fields. Public works employs people from varied disciplines including administrative, accounting, engineering, chemistry, science, building and facilities maintenance, sundry technical, etc. Most of these disciplines statistically reflect our country and state demographics more than others. In fact, records show that the discipline with the least diversity of qualified individuals is civil engineering from which a significant number of the professional core of the public works industry is drawn. Not only is the civil engineering field not diverse, the number of civil engineers has actually dwindled over the past six years.

All available information shows that the overall number of civil engineering graduates stagnated over the past five years and has indeed declined by more than 20% from ten years ago. Engineering schools are just not producing enough civil engineers to serve the needs of the profession. Current industry estimates suggest a shortage of municipal engineers of about 30% over the next few years. A shortage of this magnitude can have a devastating impact on public works and should be taken very seriously by APWA and its members. Averting this shortage will entail making the whole cross-section of our nation interested in the field of engineering. Interestingly, the solution to creating diversity in public works engineering and reversing the numerical decline of civil engineers appears to be the same.

Latest available information shows that in the last reporting year of 2004, about 1.7 million bachelor’s degrees were issued by our nation’s universities and colleges. Seventy percent of them were issued to whites, 6% to Asians, while blacks and Hispanics received 9% and 7%, respectively. These numbers are not very far off from the census demographics for that year. Though one can argue that improvement should be made in the overall graduation rates for blacks and Hispanics, the foregoing statistics are glowing in comparison to those specific to engineering. Almost 80% of all civil engineering degrees were issued to whites, 5% to Asians, about 8% Hispanics and only 3% to blacks during the same period. These numbers certainly suggest that there is a lot of untapped potential in these underrepresented minorities. Another glaring statistic involves women. Of all civil engineering degrees issued in 2004, 24% were issued to women of all races. While this represents a significant improvement over the preceding twenty years, it is very poor compared to the women’s share of all bachelor degrees awarded in 2004, which is about 57%.

Everything said thus far indicates that we appear to have a pool diverse enough for us to create an industry-wide diverse workforce except in areas related to engineering. Further, there is a present and looming shortage of engineers. Thus far, the issue of succession planning for managers has attracted more attention and has had more resources devoted to it. While one cannot question its importance, the public works engineers’ shortage deserves equal or perhaps more attention at this time.

As Baby Boomers are retiring or rapidly nearing retirement age, these issues are becoming more urgent. The departure of the Boomers not only creates a management vacuum, it also makes for a large erosion of qualified engineers to serve the public works industry at a time when the demand for engineers is soaring. It is unquestionable that the number of civil engineers produced annually needs to increase soon for the advancement or even for the maintenance of industry status quo. Without this increase, we face a potential and significant crisis in meeting the need to design and supervise the construction of the infrastructure to serve the need of our growing populace.

So, who is responsible for improving the plight of the public works industry and ensuring its long-term prosperity while maintaining diverse personnel? How can public works engineering compete well with other fields of study for the best and the brightest, especially women and underrepresented minorities who make up the large portion of this untapped potential? The answer to the first question is simply every person or organization touched by the public works industry. These include organizations such as APWA, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and various societies of professional engineers. They also include cities/municipal agencies, public works engineering firms, individual engineers, schools and universities. The answer to the second question to solve our industry’s engineer shortage and diversity problems is best laid out in the following ideas:

1. APWA and ASCE should partner with known minority organizations to develop an outreach and mentoring program for future public works engineers.

2. The foregoing organizations should also look into setting up a special task force to develop comprehensive solutions and perhaps also explore legislation that may help towards alleviating the problem.

3. Cities, public agencies and public works engineering firms should partner with local school districts to communicate with future engineers at a young age. The program should make a major effort to target women and underrepresented minorities. As part of this program, the students will learn about what engineers do and the great contribution they make to our society. We can convey to the students the excitement that we experience in solving real-life problems and the numerous employment opportunities available to young engineers. In essence, we need to “sell” the engineering profession to the young. Internship positions should be made available to those interested with participating agencies and firms. We must grow our own engineers.

An example of that can be found in the City of San Leandro, California where I work. Recognizing the increasing difficulty of recruiting civil engineers about seven years ago, the City decided to be part of the solution and grow its own. The City partnered with all the local schools and annually sends engineers to speak with all students from the sixth grade up. Every summer it offers internships to a number of interested high school students. The program has indeed borne fruit. We currently have one of the graduates of the program on our relatively small engineering staff with another one slated to join shortly. In addition, we have a number of program graduates working for various public works engineering firms. The program continues today with the continued support of all involved.

4. Individual engineers should reach out through volunteer efforts to young people’s organizations and schools. They can make presentations and provide firsthand testimony of the fulfillment and joy of being an engineer. They should also offer themselves as mentors to young people, especially underrepresented minorities, who show interest and have the aptitude but perhaps not the grades in requisite subjects to become engineering students. There have been examples of a number of people doing this with great success in the past few years.

5. APWA and organizations like it should expand their scholarship programs to help entice more students into the public works engineering field. APWA should look into creating a marketing program that trumpets public works as a great career choice that rivals any of the other very attractive careers that readily come to most young students’ minds. This could be distributed as DVDs or disseminated through sites such YouTube.

6. Lastly, universities should partner with their various pipeline schools to aggressively pursue the students and compete for the best and the brightest with other disciplines. They need to create programs that will spark the interest of the students and help them from an early stage develop skills necessary to enter and successfully complete an engineering degree program.

As a group, we must all work very hard to let women and underrepresented minorities know that public works engineering encourages and welcomes them to be a part of a great profession. Just as we all work so hard towards enhancing the legacy of the colleges and universities that we attended, we must take pride in diversifying and improving our profession, thereby ensuring its long-term prosperity.

Uchenna O. Udemezue will present “Finding Your Future Employees” at the 2007 APWA Congress on Sunday, September 9, from 8:30-9:45 a.m. He can be reached at (510) 577-3402 or uudemezue@ci.san-leandro.ca.us.