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Utah schools still short on graduating engineers

More than 800 are needed in the state

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Nathaniel Gaskin, left, Amlan Ghosh and Jeff Campbell are engineering Ph.D. students at the University of Utah. Engineers are in high demand in Utah.

Nathaniel Gaskin, left, Amlan Ghosh and Jeff Campbell are engineering Ph.D. students at the University of Utah. Engineers are in high demand in Utah.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

Utah engineering companies are looking for more than 800 new engineers in the next year, but the state's universities are not able to answer the call.

Instead, industry leaders are recruiting out of state to make up for the shortage of engineering graduates in Utah, bypassing higher wages and economic growth for the state.

In a survey of nearly 100 engineering companies in Utah, representing a workforce of roughly 6,100, the companies reported about 800 job openings and an additional 750 hires projected in the next year.

"The last time the Utah economy got hot, these companies experienced a slowdown of growth because of lack of talent," said Marilyn Davies, director of engineering development at the University of Utah. "Schools are not turning out enough engineers across the country. If you look at our global competitors, they are outproducing us by about 10 to one."

The survey, done by the Technology Initiative Advisory Board, shows Utah is increasing its engineering graduates thanks to a 2001 legislative initiative. But that increase is still not enough, said John Sutherland, vice president of engineering for Cemaphore Systems.

About 600 additional engineering graduates will earn degrees this year, but even if they were all qualified they wouldn't be able to meet the industry demand of more than 800 spots, he said.

Without more money, Utah's top engineering industries are either going to scale back to limit growth or offer the high-paying jobs — about $52,000 starting salary — to out-of-state recruits, Sutherland said.

"If you can get people who love Utah already, who were educated here, then your retention rate in keeping them in the state and contributing to our economy is much greater," said Sutherland, who also chairs the Technology Initiative Advisory Board.

Ideally, Sutherland said, the engineering initiative needs $5 million in ongoing funds this legislative session. That targeted level has never been fully funded in the past five years with the Legislature approving only $700,000 in one-time money and $500,000 in ongoing funds last year.

With those limited funds, Sutherland said Utah universities have already upped the number of engineer bachelor's degree students by 53 percent since 2000 nearly double the national average for degree growth. Those new engineering grads added roughly $200 million in wages to the Utah tax base.

"This area is badly neglected in the state of Utah. If we're going to be competitive in the future, we've got to get going with this engineering initiative," Utah Higher Education Commissioner Rich Kendell told the Board of Regents last week.

The $5 million could go a long way to help the schools continue to meet the goal of doubling the number of engineering graduates by adding faculty, equipment and classroom space. At the same time, the money could help in high schools to convince students to take the math and science classes needed to get into engineering majors.

Utah colleges have already started expanding their engineering programs to meet the industry need, with both the U. and Utah State University building new, state-of-the-art buildings. Systemwide, Utah schools have hired 85 new faculty members to usher more students through degree programs.

"Engineering is an expensive education. You need more than a podium and a blackboard. We need modern laboratories," Davies said. "We just need to be able to compete, we want to make sure that Utah continues to be attractive to the faculty."

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com