The Little Engine(ering School) That Could

by Carol A. Westbrook

Fall is here and so are the college freshmen, bright-eyed and full of dreams of their future. Welcome-freshmen11I remember my own freshman days, looking forward to four fun years, followed by medical school and career. College in 1968 was a straight path to professional or graduate school, and a secure career.

It's different today. Life after graduation is not at all certain. Today's graduates expect to be saddled with debt, going from one low paid (or unpaid) internship to another, delaying professional school or a higher degree while they pay off their debts. Combine the skyrocketing cost of college, the shortage of jobs in our sluggish economy, with the fact that college degrees often do not provide the skills needed for the jobs of today, and the reality is that college grads may not be settled in a career until they are close to forty!

The students in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania will soon have another option. King's College, a Catholic, liberal-arts college, will be offering a new degree in 2017–a bachelor's degree in engineering. Many local folks feel that this small town, with a population of only 40,000, does not need another engineering program. Nearby Wilkes University offers engineering, and there are excellent state college programs, albeit none nearby. But Wilkes-Barre has a very high proportion of Catholics (43.5% compared to 19% nationally), and these parents prefer to send their children to a Catholic college; furthermore, some students are just drawn to engineering. If these kids have to leave home to study engineering, then the brightest ones will do so, and chances are they won't return, contributing to the drain of talent from the area. If the college's successful pre-engineering program is any indication, there are likely to be more than enough students to fill this program.

But the real question is, are there jobs for engineering graduates in Wilkes-Barre?

GraduatesIn Northeast Pennsylvania, the industries which employ the most people are health care and business. Health care is strong because almost one-third of the population is on some form of medical assistance (Medicare, disability or veterans' benefits). To meet this industry's needs, all the local colleges offer programs in medical fields such as nursing or pharmacy, while King's itself has a strong Physician Assistant program. To meet the region's needs in businesses, degree programs in business or accounting are also offered at all the area colleges. Yet even in these non-technical jobs, graduates with some knowledge of science, technology, engineering or math–so-called STEM skills–are more competitive for jobs. Today, “every job is a tech job,” as Selingo points out in his book, There IS Life After College, because “every major company today has been transformed into a technology company.” Nowadays, even a factory worker in a modern manufacturing plant needs some programming or digital skills.

Engineering jobs are fewer in Wilkes-Barre, with its sluggish economy and high unemployment, so many graduates may have to relocate for their first jobs–but they will have a higher chance of returning to the area. And job prospects will almost certainly increase if there is a ready supply of manpower. For example, there is a growing shale fracking industry, and a developing wind power industry. Manufacturing is sluggish, but there is tremendous potential for development, as Wilkes-Barres only two hours drive to New York or Philadelphia, with a good interstate and rail freight capacity. An influx of STEM graduates will help to fuel entrepreneurship, providing a much-needed growth of the economy. Keep in mind, too, that engineering students have excellent training in project development and design, and can do well in business, teaching and management jobs. These are skills for the jobs of today; it is predicted that the jobs of the future will have an even greater need for STEM skills.

King's College is taking on a big commitment with this plan. Engineering programs are expensive. A bachelor's degree requires a minimum of one year of college level math and basic science, including lab courses; one and a half years of engineering topics including basic design experience; and another year and a half dedicated to general education, including humanities and liberal arts. This will require hiring engineering faculty and building more labs, and putting additional demands on already-strained humanities and science departments.

Chem labI asked Father Jack Ryan, the president of Kings' College, how his college intends to leverage this. He answered that they have already purchased an empty utility building adjacent to the campus, which is now being renovated for offices and labs. The owners were happy to unload it, and the community is happy to see it occupied and put to use. As for funds, Father Ryan answered obliquely, pointing me in the direction of a podcast, “My Little $100 Million,” by Malcolm Gladwell (author of Tipping Point). In this narrative, Gladwell describes how Hank Rowan donated $100 million to a small and impoverished public college in Glassboro New Jersey, to start a college of engineering which is now highly-regarded. The college, renamed Rowan University, now has a very successful and highly-regarded engineering program, thanks to the donation that started it all.

Wishful thinking and all prayers aside, a $100 million donation is not likely to happen for King's College. More likely, King's will start up their program as other colleges do, using tuition dollars, and looking to alumni and local businesses for smaller endowments. And hopefully in the future, one of the Kings' engineering graduates will do well enough to endow his or her Alma Mater with $100 million. Miracles do happen!


ABET, Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs, Oct. 16, 2015

There IS Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow, Jeffrey J. Selingo (William Morrow, April 12, 2016).

to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (MIT Press, February 2013), Richard A. DeMillo.

My Little Hundred Million, podcast, episode 6 of series “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell, July 20, 2016.