EVERETT - Adam Bruckner has noticed a disturbing trend during his 38 years as a University of Washington professor of aeronautics engineering.
His tests are less rigorous. His students, less prepared. Even the format of classes is changing, morphing into something that requires less manpower and smaller amounts of state money.
Bruckner, the chair of the only aeronautical engineering program in the Pacific Northwest, is facing a crisis: a malnourished budget and a bad case of student unpreparedness.
The best students are as good as they ever were, Bruckner said. But the rest aren’t keeping pace with technological innovation in the industry.
Add this to the mix: The state’s aerospace industry is in dire need of engineers. Demand consistently exceeds the state’s production at a two-to-one ratio, and that supply gap is expected to widen as the industry’s aging work force retires in droves.
“There aren’t enough seats in the university here to be able to generate that many students,” Bruckner said. “We don’t want to just crank people out for the sake of cranking people out. We want to produce good engineers.”
The problem isn’t specific to Washington state or to one field of engineering, though a dearth of aerospace engineers is more noticeable here in the shadow of aerospace giant Boeing Co.
Washington’s universities report high levels of interest from students and high demand from employers, but there’s a bottleneck in the system. Under increasing funding restraints, programs can’t hire enough faculty and staff to educate that many engineers at least, not good ones.
The crisis calls into question Washington’s place in the country’s aerospace landscape, a big red flag as Boeing moves some operations to other states and countries.
But it means an even bigger question mark for the United States’ competitive edge in engineering, especially as China and India ramp up efforts to produce a more educated work force.
Bruckner recently visited Beihang University in China, a university that focuses solely on aeronautical and astronautical engineering. It has about 26,000 students.
Compare that to the UW’s 240 aeronautics students. “It’s just mind-boggling,” Bruckner said. “They’re nipping at our heels really hard.”
The U.S. does have similar schools; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University enrolls more than 20,000 aeronautical students at campuses across the country, including five in Washington state.
“The U.S. is still at the forefront,” Bruckner said. “But the U.S. has to be really careful and make investments in education in support of engineering.”
Last summer, the UW’s College of Engineering received 880 applications from students deemed qualified for admittance into programs. Among other factors, students have to maintain a grade point average of 2.5 or higher in prerequisite classes.
The department denied admission to 370 qualified applicants due to lack of space.
“It just doesn’t make economic sense to turn these students away,” said Eve Riskin, associate dean of academic affairs for the UW’s College of Engineering.
Capacity is an issue that plagues many state universities, especially when state support drops and demand for admission goes up as it often does in a recession.
Washington’s public universities have a clear role in the state’s economic mechanisms: to act as an engine. But recently, that engine is increasingly fueled by rising tuition a sore spot for many students.
Fields such as engineering and computer science seem a logical choice for investment, considering two of Washington’s big employers are Boeing and Microsoft.