(96e) Educating the Chemical and Electrochemical Engineering Leaders of 2035

Schwartz, D. T. - Presenter, University of Washington

For some time now, AIChE has fostered discussion and debate about the shifting character of the engineering employment landscape (for example, see “Refocusing Chemical Engineering”[1] and responses). However, the last decade has brought a seismic shift in the character of employment, with serious implications for how we train the next generation of leaders in the technology sectors that rely on innovations in chemical and electrochemical engineering.  I will use data to describe the trends, then outline efforts at the University of Washington to address them.

            In 1950, non-farm employment in the U.S. was evenly split between goods and services producing industries. By 1999, employment in service producing industries dominated the U.S. economy while the percent of employment in goods producing industries had shrunken markedly [2].  During these decades chemical and electrochemical engineers certainly noticed changes, but a deep dive into more recent employment data reveals a dramatic shift in employment. 

            Electrochemical engineering is not a profession tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so below, I look at data for chemical engineers and chemists to represent trends the trends. In 1999, nearly 50% of U.S. chemical engineers and chemists worked in Chemicals Manufacturing, and less than 20% worked in an area now known as Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services (PSTS).[3] The main activities in the PSTS sector are R&D, Testing Services, and some other engineering management services. By 2012, employment in PSTS had doubled for these professions, and basic chemicals employment declined by a third.[4] While these national trends were taking place, the Seattle region grew into one of the premier company start-up climates in the country, and that provided extra reason for an electrochemical engineer at the University of Washington dig more deeply into research and training for the PSTS sector. Despite two tough recessions over the past 14 years, our State has had just three years with negative job growth, owing to the strength of new company formation.[5] 

            The data raise key questions: Are university educational programs doing a good job educating our science, technology, engineering and math students to be global PSTS leaders in 2035? PSTS includes the word “Services” in it, yet rarely is exceptional service-providing an explicit element of the educational program.  How do we educate STEM students for leadership in professional, scientific and technical service industries?  What might the segregated roles of B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. students be as we think about engineers and scientists working in a service industry?  Lastly, is this all a bunch of heresy that will destroy the quantitative foundations of B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. chemical and electrochemical engineering education?

            This electrochemical engineering tutorial talk will describe lessons learned as an educator tackling the challenge of training for a PSTS future, tempered by the perspective of a former chemical engineering department chair.  My “experimental platforms” have been an NSF IGERT program (and follow-on USDA program) that connects Ph.D. students in energy and the environment to Northwest tribes where they must negotiate and complete a scope of work that includes the possibility of publishable results (for them) and actionable results (for the tribes).  I am also the PI of an Education Department GAANN program that emphasizes innovative product R&D, in partnership with our business school and the regional business community.  Moreover, I participated in the inaugural group of NSF I-Corps awardees and served as a teacher in the NSF  “Future Innovators Workshop” (an adjunct program NSF offered to Grad Research Fellows in the Engineering Directorate). Finally, I have watching many UW students (and faculty) create their own opportunities because they want to stay in Seattle at times when traditional employment by established companies was scarce. As a result, five of my former Ph.D.s and one undergrad have founded start-ups in Seattle, three based (at least in part) on electrochemical engineering principles.  Their success levels have varied from foreclosure to Fortune labeling them a top 10 new technology. Together, it creates a story about the role of higher education in preparing the leaders of 2035.

[1] E.L Cussler, D.W. Savage, A.P.J. Middelberg, and M. Kind, “Refocusing Chemical Engineering”, Chem. E. Progress, 98 (1), 26S (2002).

[2] J. Hatch and A. Clinton, “Job Growth in the 1990s: A retrospective”, Monthly Labor review, pp. 3-18, December, 2000.

[3] http://www.bls.gov/oes/1999/oes_nat.htm

[4] http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oessrci.htm

[5] Amy Martinez, “New businesses run leaner, holding down job growth,” Seattle Times, 3/22/2014.