Engineering job growth

UGA’s newest college is attracting students who could fill an increasing number of engineering jobs in Georgia

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Engineering job growth

Photo illustration with research professional Manjinder Singh operating a photobioreactor (PBR), a controlled condition system used for growing algae, which is analyzed for its nutrient concentration. The PBR is in a Biorefining and Carbon Cycling Program laboratory.

The deadline for early admission to UGA approached and Andrew Swicegood, a student from Macon, had already applied to civil engineering programs at Vanderbilt and Clemson universities. He thought to himself, “I better make sure Georgia doesn’t have this major, or I’m going to be kicking myself.”

When Swicegood checked online and found civil engineering was a new major at UGA he quickly sent in his application to become a member of the College of Engineering’s inaugural class. He says other UGA students are surprised when he tells them his major.

“When I say civil engineering, they haven’t heard of that before. I was intending not to come to Georgia because I didn’t want to be like anybody else from my town, but now I realize it’s super unique because civil engineering just started,” he says.

The new College of Engineering—UGA’s 17th college or school—is a significant step toward keeping students like Swicegood in state for college and hopefully longer. Georgia has well below the national average of graduates with bachelor’s degrees in engineering and is trying to catch up to meet the existing demand from Georgia companies—and attract new opportunities. Georgia has nearly 3 percent of the national population, but only 1.84 percent of national jobs for civil engineers, 2.26 percent for electrical engineers and 1.22 percent for mechanical engineers, according to data by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Labor.

From left: Matt McCue, a bio-engineering major from Augusta; Peter Kner, an assistant professor of engineering, and Jon Janssen, an agricultural engineering major from Cartersville, use an oscilloscope and function generator to build and test an electronic filter.

Companies have been forced to look to other states and countries to fill as many as half of all engineering jobs in the state, according to a 2002 report by Washington Advisory Group commissioned by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

More than 180 years after UGA began offering engineering classes, the College of Engineering now offers six undergraduate degrees and seven graduate degrees. In fall 2013, electrical and electronics engineering and mechanical engineering programs will launch, expanding the number of undergraduate engineering degree programs at UGA to eight.

The college expects to expand from about 640 undergraduate and 70 graduate engineering students in fall 2012 to more than 1,300 students by fall 2015. The faculty is expected to grow from 46 to 58 faculty members in that time frame. UGA believes building a comprehensive engineering program will make the university more competitive in attracting faculty and garnering funding for research, which is critical to the College of Engineering.

Alex Squires, of Richmond Hill, who got his undergraduate degrees in biological engineering and cognitive science in 2012, uses a device built for the veterinary school to perform minimally invasive brain biopsies. The device is used in diagnostic imaging to define a coordinate system to locate a tumor or sample for biopsy and precisely indexes the specific location. It is seen here with the skull of a dog. Squires now is pursuing a master’s degree in engineering.

UGA’s effort to re-engineer its engineering education is one of two major initiatives nationally in the U.S., but the only public effort. The other is Olin College outside of Boston, which was established in 2001 with a private endowment.

The impact of training and preparing more students to fill in-demand and high-paying engineering jobs in Georgia could be substantial. If 200 additional engineers in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering were added to the Georgia workforce the annual economic impact to the state would be $10.5 million, based on an average entry-level salary of $52,549 (according to the Georgia Department of Labor).

Assistant professor of engineering Sudhagar Mani shows his students how to use a probe to check the surface temperature of a solar hot water heater panel.

Companies, from Georgia Power to small engineering firms, are seeking to hire graduates who can bring practical skills to the workforce. UGA’s education offers project-based learning and teamwork exercises in addition to mastering theory and concepts of engineering. The new College of Engineering has piqued the interest of businesses that are approaching UGA about creating internships and co-op programs.

“It’s been rewarding to observe the corporate and industry reaction,” says interim Dean Dale Threadgill, who has served as director of UGA’s Faculty of Engineering since 2001. “These were companies that weren’t talking to us before. They didn’t give us the time of day.”

Threadgill says companies tell him some job candidates from other schools are too focused on theory rather than practical knowledge and don’t bring relevant skills into the workplace. Other graduates head straight into research, passing by open positions for engineers.

Employers already are impressed with UGA students’ and graduates’ practical knowledge and confidence in professional settings. Sarah Sliger, a December 2012 College of Engineering graduate, says that her boss during her 2012 summer internship commented a number of times on her ability to participate in conversations about complex topics, while an intern from another school struggled to keep up.

Squires tests an MRI-safe EKG device in the medical robotics lab.

Sliger landed a job with the same company, Eaton Corp., shortly after graduating, hired to be a supplier quality engineer at its supercharger plant in Athens.

Supporters of the new College of Engineering include Georgia Power, which has a long history of hiring agricultural engineers out of UGA. Georgia Power funded the creation of the Mickey A. Brown Endowed Professor in Engineering to honor Brown (BSAE ’69), an agricultural engineering major who worked for Georgia Power for 42 years and retired in December 2011. Brown is a member of the College’s Engineering Advisory Board, comprised of leaders from all over the world. The position will be a full-time, tenure-track professorship.

Like other companies, Georgia Power has identified a greater need to hire electrical and mechanical engineers, as well as civil engineers.

“The school is definitely going to help us in that regard. We need engineers all over this state,” says W. Craig Barrs (BBA ’80), the company’s executive vice president of external affairs. “This is a new area (for UGA) and it fits a strategic need for our company, and what we believe is needed for a growing Georgia.”

Students and alumni say being affiliated with UGA’s new College of Engineering could give more recognition and validity in the eyes of employers, on top of the skills they’ve gained from the faculty and courses.

“I felt like I basically was able to hit the ground running once I started working and that the skills that I learned in the engineering classes at UGA did really prepare me for that,” says Julie Secrist (BSAE ’06), who works for an Atlanta engineering firm.

The new degrees have the potential to attract many of the best and brightest applicants who now head out of state for an engineering education. Fewer than half of Georgia’s high school graduates who want an engineering degree and have SAT scores between 1,200 and 1,600 enroll in engineering programs in Georgia, choosing instead to study at schools in Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee, for example.

Students in the medical robotics lab built this MRI-safe pneumatic agitator designed to test hardware that will be implanted in the heart. The device was built by the medical robotics lab run by assistant engineering professor Zion Tse.

“It made me real pleased that it was becoming a bigger program and being an actual school of engineering instead of the faculty of engineering,” says Eric Malinowski, a freshman civil engineering major from Alpharetta.

Math- and science-loving students see opportunity in engineering. The need for civil engineers is expected to increase by 19 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. UGA students also are being trained in sectors such as waste management and remediation, whose high projections of job growth (as much as 15 to 26 percent) indicate job security in the future.

Maggie McBrearty couldn’t wait for July 2012, when the College of Engineering became official and she could add it to her resume and email signature. “I was counting the days to say, everybody, it’s official,” says McBrearty, who graduated in December 2012 with a degree in biological engineering.

Margaret McBrearty, from Macon, who graduated last year with a degree in biological engineering, sets up a surveying transit level to measure the change in the topography of the Athens-Clarke County Landfill as trash shifts and decomposes.

As a student, she was a member of some of the College of Engineering’s numerous student organizations, which include Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, Engineers Without Borders, the Society of Environmental Engineers, the Engineering Graduate Club, and the student branches of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers and the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

McBrearty recognized the value of her engineering education during a summer internship with Georgia Power and a 20-hour-a-week job at the Athens Clarke-County Landfill in fall 2012. When she posted a class project on LinkedIn, she immediately got called for a job interview with Environmental Resources Management, a provider of environmental, health, safety, risk and social consulting services with more than 140 offices in 39 countries.

“Companies want your experience and what you’ve learned,” she says.

Assistant Athletics Director Charlie Whittemore points out structural details of Sanford Stadium during an Introduction to Civil Engineering class tour of the facility last fall.