Regardless of the job market’s current state, there’s no question that the demand for engineers is about to accelerate, Betsy Willis said.
‘‘If you talk to any major corporation, most of them are going to say that a large proportion of their engineers are going to be at retirement age within the next five years,’’ said Willis, director of student programs and outreach in the school of engineering at Southern Methodist University.
‘‘So the industry is going to be facing a mass exodus of engineers,’’ she said.
And one of the biggest untapped sources of potential engineers is women, Willis and other female engineers contended at a recent panel discussion in Dallas hosted by the Alliance of Technology and Women.
Among the panelists were Susan Skemp, manager of advanced technology planning at Pratt & Whitney and past president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; and Dianne Dorland, dean of the college of engineering at Rowan University in New Jersey and past president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
In an interview before the panel discussion, Skemp said that the scarcity of women engineers traces to the end of World War II.
‘‘Back in the ’40s in World War II, women took over roles not necessarily in engineering, but they were in the factory doing the manufacturing aspect,’’ she said. ‘‘When the war ended, they moved back into being housewives. Some women did go on to get engineering degrees and were at the forefront.’’
Now 20 percent to 25 percent of all students graduating from college engineering programs are women, Dorland said.
‘‘I would say in chemical engineering, about 35 percent of the student body are women,’’ she said.
By comparison, Skemp said, only about 17 percent of mechanical engineers are women.
The disparity can be partly explained by looking at the scientific disciplines that girls are more likely to be exposed to in high school, Dorland said.
‘‘Quite frankly, chemistry is a common high school subject that men and women tend to take,’’ she said. ‘‘One of the things you find in any field is that familiarity breeds a desire to go on in that area.’’
Willis of SMU noted that many female students have a misconception of the overall field of engineering.
‘‘Engineering has this bad image that we can’t seem to shake that engineers are nerds and wear pocket protectors and live in little cubicles,’’ she said. ‘‘For 95 percent of engineers, I would say that’s not true at all.’’
Willis also said that many students don’t realize the breadth of the engineering field. She likes to tell students that her background is in food process engineering.
‘‘I think food is one area people don’t think of when they think of engineering or they think of genetic engineering,’’ she said.
Willis said that SMU has a goal of reaching gender parity in the engineering student body in five years.
Today, about 30 percent of its undergraduate student body is female, she said, which is higher than the national average.
And the trends are moving in the right direction, Skemp said.
‘‘We haven’t seen the percentage increase as much as we would like,’’ she said. ‘‘But we are seeing more women in roles of leadership and responsibility.’’