Engineering the Future: Encouraging a Diverse and Modern Workforce
Article

May 15, 2024

Engineering the Future: Encouraging a Diverse and Modern Workforce

Melissa Warnke

Melissa Warnke

Director, Product Marketing

Graduation season is upon us. This got me thinking back to my own graduations and the full circle moment, moving to the transportation industry has felt like. You see, I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and as one of the top engineering institutions in this country, I met many engineers over my four years (and have many fond memories with those engineers). Today, I have again entered a space where I get to interact with phenomenal engineers. With workforce challenges being a perpetual topic in the transportation industry (including the need for more engineers), this graduation season got me thinking: How many newly graduated civil engineers are likely to enter the workforce? How diverse is this class of graduates? And is it enough?

Trends show a mixed story

The short answer to that last question is no, there aren’t enough graduates, but I’ll get to that in a moment. For over 10 years, The American Society for Engineering Education has put out an annual Engineering by the Numbers report. I looked at the most recent report (2022) to see what the numbers look like today compared to 10 years ago (2012). I’ll share the good news first. The diversity of the engineering community is growing, meaning our engineers are starting to look more like the communities they work in. More work is needed, but the trends are moving in the right direction.

Charts showing the percentage of certain groups and the percentage of Engineering Bachelor's Degrees awarded

However, the number of civil engineers graduating or enrolled is mostly declining. This is likely only going to exacerbate the transportation workforce problem. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that civil engineering job growth is projected to grow 5 percent from 2022 to 2032. They also project that the number of openings per year will be 21,200, many resulting from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or retire. With only 12-13 thousand graduates a year, the transportation industries workforce challenge will continue.

Charts showing the number of Civil Engineering Bachelor's Degrees awarded in 2012 compared to 2022

Encouraging entrants; Modernizing skills

There isn’t a single solution to a problem of this size. It will take a collective effort to both encourage young people to enter the industry and ensure we are helping to modernize those already here.

At Rekor, I am proud to see us working to support both of these efforts. Through our employee resource group, EmpWR, we are connecting with organization such as Girls Who Code to encourage women to enter STEM related fields. We are also working with several universities, including The University of Texas at Austin, to engage on projects and opportunities that help drive interest in the transportation industry.

Rekor team members educating at a Girls Who Code event

To me, a critical part of modernizing a workforce is embracing new tools and new ways of working. And AI certainly fits that bill.  AI can empower and enhance the efficiency of humans by provide the insights human professionals use to make informed, empathetic, and strategic decisions. Using AI to gather vehicle count and classification data is a prime example of leveraging AI to efficiently, safely, thoroughly, and accurately perform a task that allows our scarce resource (our workforce) to focus on the important decision-making part of building a safe, reliable, and sustainable transportation system. It also ensures that our workforce continues to grow and learn new skills and new approaches to how they work, leaning into a technology that can also help excite the next (and current) generation of workers.

Conclusion

So, congratulations to all the graduates (and parents/guardians of graduates). In the coming years, I hope to see many of this next generation excited about entering the transportation industry, while also seeing everyone tapping into these powerful new tools. All with a shared focus on the mission to build a safe, efficient, sustainable, and equitable infrastructure for all.