In the United States, 3.9 million people have a degree in engineering. Only about 1 in 3 degreed engineers, however, are currently employed in their field of study.
Most degreed engineers instead wind up working in related fields like computing or engineering management. But a sizable minority of degreed engineers – almost one in five – are employed in non-engineering fields like business or law.
According to Sheri Sheppard, Stanford’s Richard Weiland Professor of Mechanical Engineering and co-Director of the Center for Design Research in the School of Engineering, the fact that many degreed engineers are pursuing other types of careers isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
At a Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows presentation in March titled “Tracing Engineering Pathways is Not a Simple Matter: How and Why Diversity Matters,” Sheppard, a Clayman Institute faculty fellow, identified how personal and societal factors shape engineers’ career pathways.
While pursuing an engineering degree, many students begin to realize they can apply their technical and analytical skills to a wider range of post-graduate opportunities than they initially imagined, Sheppard explained. “For me, [the data] shows that engineering enables many possibilities.”
When it comes to applying one’s technical skills to a wide range of interests, Sheppard has developed a firsthand experience of the many possibilities afforded by an engineering degree.
When Sheppard isn’t researching, teaching, or publishing about fracture mechanics and applied finite element analysis, she studies people’s decisions to become engineers. “This is a question I’ve been struggling with for twenty-plus years, and I’ll bet I will be struggling with it for another twenty years.”
Working as part of an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers, one of Sheppard’s most recent education-focused research projects examines people’s pathways into – as well as out of – engineering. This National Science Foundation-funded project, titled “Understanding the Educational and Career Pathways of Engineers,” is published by the National Academy of Engineering (the study is available for download).
Sheppard and her colleagues identify five steps scholars, educators and policy-makers can take toward diversifying engineering. An important first step is increasing students’ awareness about what careers in engineering are like.
Understanding degreed engineers’ career decisions is important, because white and Asian men currently dominate the field. Women – who make up more than half of the college-educated workforce – comprise a mere 14 percent of engineers. Only 11 percent of engineers identify as black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, or Latinx, despite the fact that people belonging to one of these historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups make up about 15 percent of the U.S. college-educated workforce.
In the report, Sheppard and her colleagues identify five steps scholars, educators and policy-makers can take toward diversifying engineering.
An important first step is increasing students’ awareness about what careers in engineering are like.
“A relatively small number of individuals in the U.S. have an engineering degree. It’s about 1 percent of the U.S. population… You can imagine there are locations in the U.S. where students have never met an engineer because [they live in areas without] the kind of factories or facilities that would be employing engineers.”
Take, for example, something as ordinary as a tube of toothpaste. During her talk, Sheppard said students might not realize that engineers play a huge role in ensuring everyone’s teeth stay healthy and clean.
Chemical engineers make decisions about toothpaste’s color, flavor and consistency. Safety engineers ensure toothpaste won’t harm our mouths or teeth. Packaging engineers design the collapsible tube toothpaste comes in, and manufacturing engineers make sure companies have the right equipment to mass produce it.
By helping students understand the ubiquitous effects of engineering within their daily lives, Sheppard aims to draw a more diverse population into the field.
At Stanford, where nearly 40 percent of students major in engineering, Sheppard currently is involved with numerous efforts to improve engineering education by understanding the student experience. These efforts include the NSF-sponsored Pathways of Engineering Graduates Project, which is a continuation of a project called Epicenter: National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation. Additionally, she is involved with a program on summer research experiences for high school teachers and a study of interns at a major product development and manufacturing corporation. For nearly 20 years, Sheppard also has served as faculty advisor to Stanford’s Mechanical Engineering Women’s Group, which holds an annual seminar series and a welcome program for women engineers.
Sheppard’s outstanding accomplishments within engineering have been recognized with numerous honors and awards, including the Chester F. Carlson Award (2004), the Ralph Coats Roe Awards (2012), and the Walter J. Gores Award (2010) – Stanford’s highest award for excellence in teaching.
(Photo by Pim Chu on Unsplash)