State steps up its efforts to produce more engineers

By Michelle Dunlop and Jerry Cornfield Herald Writers

Will the Boeing Co. and its suppliers have enough engineers to work on new programs like the 737 MAX or a potential upgrade to the 777?

Thousands of engineers are approaching retirement age.

And too few Washington college students are graduating with engineering degrees.

The company and industry leaders in the state raised the question of a sufficient supply of engineers a few years ago.

Over years of budget shortfalls, the state wasn’t able to up its engineering game until this legislative session. At the behest of Gov. Chris Gregoire, state universities are being asked to add 850 engineering slots over the next two years. The House and Senate have each passed a budget endorsing the proposal, though each covers the estimated $7.6 million cost in different ways.

That should help make up the engineering shortfall predicted in a recent study by the state’s higher education board, among others.

In 2010, the state had about 912 graduates in engineering, software engineering and architecture. To keep up with estimated demand in those fields in 2014-19, Washington needs to matriculate 663 more students each of those years.

Next fall, Washington State University intends to offer a mechanical engineering course through the University Center collaborative at Everett Community College, said Bob Olsen, WSU associate dean for undergraduate programs. Right now they’re planning on 15 students, he said.

Enrollment will be higher if state lawmakers and the governor keep their pledge to increase slots for engineering students at WSU and the University of Washington.

WSU officials intend to allocate 60 of 425 alloted for engineering classes at the University Center. Olsen said it is too soon to know exactly how many of those slots will be filled this fall versus the fall of 2013.

It will hinge partly on whether there is enough demand, he said. Applications are being accepted for the initial class, and he stressed that it’s not too late to apply.

“Everything is on track,” he said. “It is going to happen.”

WSU will take charge of the University Center of North Puget Sound from Everett Community College in 2014. University Center is on the EvCC campus is a collaboration involving several public and private universities.

At an event for regional business leaders in November, WSU President Elson Floyd emphasized the importance of education in retaining Boeing jobs.

“If we have engineering in Everett that’s meeting Boeing’s workforce needs, then Boeing is more likely to stay there,” Floyd said.