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Engineering business groups enthusiastic about equity direction of ISU engineering program

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Izzy Carroll
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WGLT

A group that represents 250 engineering firms in the state says it's excited about Illinois State University's decision to start a College of Engineering.

Kevin Artl is the CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois. Artl said new federal and state infrastructure funding means ISU graduates can build careers.

"I think we consider this generational funding. There's a lot at the early stage because you've got this big backlog of projects, but over the long term what you see baked into these infrastructure programs is sustainable funding to carry on," said Artl.

He said most Illinois firms need to grow by 20-30% to meet demands for new projects, adding Illinois mostly needs civil and structural engineers.

"In Illinois, we haven't had a significant capitol program in well over a decade and so there hasn't been a whole lot of work in that space. As a result, engineers that were here left to go to states for larger projects. Students probably didn't see a viable future in civil or structural and so didn't go into those roles," said Artl.

He said that means a lot of new engineering graduates left the state and the existing profession in Illinois skews older. That could add to job opportunities for new graduates as veteran engineers retire.

He said ISU's initiative, which will enroll its first class in 2025, is very timely because decades of infrastructure neglect in Illinois have left the field to other states that have been more active. For instance, he said Indiana passed a capital bill four or five years before Illinois did.

"Indiana actually hired recruiters to seek Purdue and Indiana University graduates who were working in Illinois to come back home," said Artl.

He said the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) recently advertised for 100 engineers and techs to work on new infrastructure projects. And the demand for engineers may only grow. Illinois must compete with other states for new engineers. There already are 90,000 engineering vacancies nationwide, even before the federal infrastructure bill creates a raft of new projects, said Artl. And that number will only grow.

Illinois has about 150,000 engineers, according to a study by the council's parent group, the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC). Communications Director Jeff Urbanchuk said the work they do contributes about $19.8 billion to the Gross Domestic Product.

He said the council's research estimates the new federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will create 82,000 new engineering jobs in a field with an existing backlog of projects.

Equity in engineering

ACEC also is applauding ISU plans to take use an equity lens for its engineering program.

That's something praised by the Illinois Board of Higher Education and Gov. JB Pritzker. Urbanchuck said the state of the industry is not very diverse with 70% white, 11% female, 16% Asian, and fewer percentages of African American and Hispanic engineers.

"The challenge we have is that retention question. A recent study showed that 100% of firm principal engineers who were female had considered leaving the industry, compared to 47% of men," said Urbanchuk. "Largely, it's a change in culture. It's also showing underrepresented groups they do have a seat at the table and showing them a pathway not only to securing a position, but into management and leadership. We're focused on trying to develop that talent pool."

ISU President Terri Goss Kinzy said that process starts before college.

"It's going to be being really intentional about the recruitment process. That means community college partnerships. It means working with STEM high schools in areas where we have underrepresented students, magnet schools, being in outreach to these community organizations that work in advancing STEM. There are a large number of those. So, there are really a great number of opportunities if we start from the beginning," said she said.

Goss Kinzy said there is not a shortage of engineering faculty in most places in the nation because there have been delays in hiring because of COVID. She said ISU will set aside additional funding in start-up packages and be intentional about attracting diverse faculty, too.

"It also ties in to conversations we have with companies. They really appreciate, as we do, how a diverse workforce gives you diverse ideas and better outcomes. Diversity is excellence. They are looking for the same things we are, which is to hear all different perspectives when we look at a problem and engineers are problem solvers," said Goss Kinzy.

Urbanchuck said ACEC provides education on this issue to all sizes of firms. He said larger firms already have robust diversity programs, but many smaller concerns do not. The issue also is part of ACEC's strategic plan and ISU's initiative could serve that goal.

"It's always good for an industry that's focused on improving society and serving the community to better represent that community itself," said Urbanchuk.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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