Changing Demographics and Shrinking Engineering Enrollments (includes associated papers 25294 and 25517 )
- Betty M. Vetter (Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- March 1992
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 360 - 364
- 1992. Society of Petroleum Engineers
- 4.2 Pipelines, Flowlines and Risers, 6.1.5 Human Resources, Competence and Training
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- 71 since 2007
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Changing U.S. population demographics, poor academic preparation, and a decreasing interest in engineering among college students indicate possible shortages ahead, particularly among chemical and petroleum engineers. If we are to ensure an adequate future supply for the U.S., the engineering talent pool must be enlarged to include women and minority men.
Over the past few years, most of the U.S. industry has been downsizing, hardly noticing that the number of engineering degrees awarded has dropped or that the characteristics of graduating classes have changed. Several changes have affected both the numbers and characteristics of engineering students.
Because of the drop in U.S. births beginning in 1962, there are 2.5 million fewer college-age students today than in the mid to late 1970's, and that population will continue to decline throughout the mid 1990's-a 25% drop(Fig. 1). The rising number of births after 1975 continued through 1990, when the number almost matched the 1961 peak. But it is quite a different crop of babies in the new wave, which will be the source for engineering students in the following decades.
In addition to a 25% drop in the size of the college-freshman age group, the racial and ethnic characteristics of both today's and tomorrow's freshmen also are changing significantly. More of these youth are Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians than in the past, and more of tomorrow's college-age students must come from minority groups.
Most of the 35% increase in minorities that occurred during the 1980's was a result of the net increase in children. The white, non-Hispanic population grew only 2% during that decade, dropping from 76% of the U.S. total population to 71%. Immigration, both legal and illegal, accounts for some of the increase, and higher birth rates among these minorities account for more. Bust most of all, the minority populations are much younger. Increased immigration (particularly for Hispanics and Asians), higher birth rates for Blacks and Hispanics, and younger ages of all three groups mean that school children are more likely to be from minority families.
In 1982, minorities made up one-fourth of the school-age population. By 2000, they will make up one-third, and by 2010, about one-half. And 50%of these children are girls, leaving a smaller and smaller fraction of white males.
This would not be a problem except that, in the past, we have relied almost exclusively on white males to become our engineers, as well as our physicians; our college faulty; and our leaders in government, education, and other essential activities. At the same time, our educational system has done a very poor job until now of preparing most minority youngsters to go to college and major in engineering. Furthermore, we have allowed and sometimes even encouraged, minority boys (as well as girls of every racial or ethnic group) to drop out of mathematics in high school or to take a mathematics course sequence that will make it impossible for them to choose mathematics-based college majors.
Interest in Engineering
As our traditional white-male source pool for engineering has grown smaller, we have done very little to increase that talent pool with females and minority males who are capable, interested in, and prepared to choose and engineering field. At best, interest in mathematics and science drops drastically after elementary school and continues to decline throughout height school and college. The drop is greater for women than for men and faster for minorities than for the majority. Thus, of 3.5 million first-graders in 1968, only about 66,000 or 1 in 54, earned an engineering degree in 1990. Another change has occurred that affects our future supply.
Since 1982, male and female college freshmen have expressed less interest in majoring in engineering or other mathematics-based fields than in earlier years (Fig. 2). The percentage of the freshman class planning to major in engineering (or any related fields, such as computer science, mathematics, or physical sciences) peaked in 1982 at 12.6% and has since dropped by one-fourth in engineering and by more than two-thirds in computer science. Interest in the physical sciences has dropped slowly but steadily for 15 years.
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