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I read the President's Note In the September/ October issue of Civil Engineering and was left wondering if we are thinking broadly enough on how we will meet the future workforce challenge. What was particularly provoking was the comment that trade schools are siphoning off talent that otherwise might go into traditional CE educational programs. It makes me wonder if there's a way we can pull some of this talent into CE and not dilute the standards of the profession. I'm all for competency and critical thinking but is a four-year degree essential to fill many of the roles that need to be filled – and not compromise on safety or outcomes? Until we face up to this option we are really limiting the tools in the tool box to growth and likely leaving some great talent on the doorstep. I'm curious what others think here. This plays into a larger theme for me that the engineering writ large is ripe for disruption and if we don't take the lead it will happen without us.
Oftentimes when I was on a construction site, I realized that I was, far and away, receiving the lowest compensation of anyone on site. I met a union painter who was training one day, and he mentioned he had a degree in civil engineering, but he chose to become a painter when he realized that he would only have to work 8-9 months a year being a painter, receive better pay, benefits, and pension, and after 15 years, could become a full-time trainer, and after 15 years of that, retire with full benefits. I have often considered his words and have just as often considered his career path. 15 years of labor and 15 years of training would have been all I needed for a safe and comfortable retirement, in lieu of 40+ of work with a retirement funded by the whims of the stock market. In a world where basics like owning a home and providing for a family are getting further and further out of reach for many younger people, people are going to make rational decisions about how to provide for their material needs, and civil engineering is going to become less and less of a rational choice for people to make with better, adjacent ways to make ends meet.
I was at a bar one New Year's Eve and met some software engineers making 3-4 times what I was making with similar experience to me. When I told them what I did, they replied, "Oh, you're a real engineer!" Respect, while soothing for the ego, does not pay the bills. When I started school prior to the Great Recession, I was told that civil engineering was one of the lowest paying fields of engineering out there, and the collapse of the home building industry in the late 00s only exacerbated that. Faced with record rents, record tuition costs, record childcare costs, it is only logical that people are going to insulate themselves against those stresses as best they can, and civil engineering has become a less and less attractive way to accomplish that over time.