SMU among those working to fill engineer gap

With so many sectors of the national economy crawling toward recovery at a sluggish pace and the gloomy picture being drawn in negative campaign advertising, it is easy to forget that some industries and individual companies are continuing to grow.

The aerospace and technology industries in Washington state, for example, cannot find enough homegrown engineers to fill their increasing needs, forcing them to import recruits from other states.

It was reported at a computer science and engineering symposium last year that among the top 10 states for technology workers, Washington ranks second for the number of employed engineers. But the report also added the majority of them were educated and trained out-of-state.

And The Boeing Co. reported not long ago that about half of its engineers would retire within the next five years, creating thousands of job openings.

Against that backdrop, the scheduled opening this fall of St. Martin’s University’s new 26,000 square-foot engineering building and expanded program looks particularly fortuitous.

The new facilities are just the tangible symbols of a major investment into its newly renamed Hal and Inge Marcus School of Engineering. St. Martin’s hired a new dean of the school last year, Dr. Zella Kahn-Jetter, and plans to construct an additional engineering industrial lab building next year.

St. Martin’s engineering initiative will eventually double the number of graduate and undergraduate students in its programs.

The school offers bachelor and graduate degrees in civil and mechanical engineering, and a graduate degree in engineering management. Program expansion will include new graduate degrees and assistantship programs, eventually takings its current 164 students up to 370. There are more than 1,300 alumni.

The University of Washington and Washington State University also are expanding their programs, but they still will not have enough room for the volume of engineering applicants. The UW, for example, only accepts about half of the qualified students who apply.

That positions SMU to become a more influential school in a field vital to the state’s economy. It is the only baccalaureate-granting engineering program in the South Sound.

Its new Cebula Hall, a certified LEED platinum building, will itself be a learning tool by exposing, rather than hiding, the structure’s systems. Students will see how its structural elements work with each other.

The $7.4 million building should be an enticement to attract top students to the South Sound school.

There are 1,300 students enrolled in all SMU programs at the main campus in Lacey and another 650 in extension programs at JBLM and Centralia College. While students come from 32 states and 10 countries, 89 percent are Puget Sound residents and 26 percent from Pierce County.

Of the engineering students registered for the fall term, 30 percent are the first in their families to attend college, 35 percent are minorities and 27 percent are women.

Credit the school’s administration and board for identifying the engineering demand early, and launching the program in 2012. It first larger class of engineering students should be graduating just as the demand a Boeing reaches its peak.