Engineering Business Groups Enthused About Equity Direction of ISU Engineering Program

    A group representing 250 engineering firms in the state says it is 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 look at this generational funding. There’s a lot of it in the early stage because you have a huge backlog of projects, but in the long term what you see embedded in these infrastructure programs is sustainable funding to continue,” Artl said. .

    He said most Illinois businesses need to grow 20% to 30% to meet demand for new projects, adding that Illinois primarily needs civil and structural engineers.

    “In Illinois, we haven’t had a significant capitol program in over a decade, so there hasn’t been a lot of work in that space. As a result, the engineers who were here have gone to the states for larger projects. The students probably they did not see a viable future in the civil or structural sector and therefore did not accept those roles,” Artl said.

    He said that means many new engineering graduates have left the state and the existing profession in Illinois is older. That could increase job opportunities for new graduates as veteran engineers retire.

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

    “Indiana actually hired recruiters to find Purdue and Indiana University graduates who were working in Illinois to come home,” Artl said.

    He said the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) recently announced the hiring of 100 engineers and technicians to work on new infrastructure projects. And the demand for engineers can only grow. Illinois must compete with other states for new engineers. There are already 90,000 engineering vacancies across the country, even before the federal infrastructure bill creates a slew of new projects, Artl said. 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 Firms (ACEC). Communications director Jeff Urbanchuk said the work they do contributes about $19.8 billion to Gross Domestic Product.

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

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

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

    “The challenge we have is the issue of retention. A recent study showed that 100% of the company’s principal engineers who were women had considered leaving the industry, compared to 47% of men,” said Urbanchuk. “Largely, it’s a change in culture. It also shows underrepresented groups that they have a seat at the table and shows them a path not only to securing a position, but also to management and leadership. We’re focused on dealing to develop that talent pool.”

    ISU President Terri Goss Kinzy said the process begins before college.

    “It’s going to be really intentional about the recruiting process. That means community college partnerships. It means working with STEM high schools in areas where we have underrepresented students, magnet schools, being in touch with these community organizations that are working on advancing STEM. There’s a lot of those. So there’s really a lot of opportunity if we start from the beginning,” he said.

    Goss Kinzy said there is no shortage of engineering professors in most places around the country because there have been hiring delays due to COVID. She said ISU will set aside additional funds in start-up packages and will also intend to attract diverse faculty.

    “It also relates to the conversations we have with companies. They really appreciate, as we do, how a diverse workforce gives them diverse ideas and better results. Diversity is excellence. They’re looking for the same things that we are, which is to hear all the different perspectives when looking at a problem and engineers are problem solvers,” said Goss Kinzy.

    Urbanchuck said ACEC provides education on this topic to businesses of all sizes. He said that larger companies already have strong diversity programs, but many smaller companies don’t. The issue is also part of ACEC’s strategic plan and the ISU initiative could meet that goal.

    “It’s always good for an industry that’s focused on bettering society and serving the community to better represent that community,” Urbanchuk said.