The Pandemic Takes its Toll
How Has the Coronavirus Made Entering Engineering More Difficult
2020 was an unprecedented year. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the world to its knees, changing life as we know it. It’s been particularly crippling for the world of engineering. A global economy in recession has forced many companies to rethink their operations. For new engineers, this organizational rethinking has led to fewer career opportunities.
Engineering education has not come through unscathed either. Many engineering programs have been forced online. The toll of this transition between in-person and online learning environments has been felt by both students and faculty alike.
Ultimately, coronavirus has made entering engineering more difficult. Because of the limitations posed by the pandemic, engineers entering the field today will have to overcome challenges not encountered by their peers.
The impact of coronavirus on career prospects for new engineers
Faced with cash flow problems and falling commodity prices, engineering companies across the world have been forced to limit their spending. This spending limitation has led to a focus on sustainment rather than expansion. In a time of tightening budgets, companies look to maintain their existing operations and look to staff they know and trust rather than taking a risk with someone new. Companies have cancelled projects and have otherwise limited their activities, leading to fewer career prospects for new engineers.
Many companies, looking to pad their bottom line, are streamlining their workforces. Positions for new engineers are often the first to go when positions are being eliminated. Prioritizing engineers with experience over new engineers has further limited job opportunities for new engineers.
Some companies have gone bankrupt or have been acquired by other companies. Bankruptcies and acquisitions result in the elimination or consolidation of engineering positions available to new engineers.
The positions designated for new engineers that have not been eliminated have become far more competitive, and these positions have been seeing an unprecedented number of applications. Recruiters, tasked with interviewing and hiring the best of the best, are forced to turn away many qualified candidates.
Many new engineers have been offered career opportunities, only to have had these opportunities revoked. The coronavirus pandemic is particularly stinging for these new engineers. For many, it takes months to secure an engineering position. Finally being offered a position then having it snatched away through no fault of their own is particularly hurtful.
Even those lucky enough to get an engineering job have had a vastly different experience than their pre-pandemic peers. In many companies, access to field sites has been limited to essential personnel to prevent the spread of the virus. Some companies are requiring their workforces to work from home. Doing so limits not only access to field operations, but also in-person access to colleagues.
Engineering is a profession that is much more effective in person. Inspecting equipment damage in the field, for example, is significantly easier when an engineer can go inspect the equipment rather than having a field employee sending a video. Similarly, looking over engineering drawings with colleagues isn’t the same when everyone isn’t sitting in the same room.
Because of the constraints that come with engineering remotely, an engineer in this new environment may be less effective. New engineers in particular will come up against these limitations. They learn a lot in the first few years of their careers — by asking, seeing, touching, and doing. Not being able to do this as effectively can limit how well a new engineer learns their profession.
The sad reality is that because of the pandemic, many new engineers will have to delay the start of their career. Some may never work in engineering. The profession will take some time to recover, as companies won’t operate at pre-pandemic levels for several years.
Coronavirus and its effect on engineering education
In March of 2020, many engineering programs were forced online to combat the spread of coronavirus. Most thought that this change of environment would last for a few weeks, with students returning to campus in full force for the next semester.
In reality, many of these same engineering programs continue to only offer online education. While administrators, educators, and students are hoping for the best, it is unclear whether students and faculty will be returning to their campuses in 2021 at all.
Being forced to learn online has changed the playing field and required students to adapt to a style of learning which is unfamiliar for many. This change of environment is especially challenging for those starting out their engineering education, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Students who are starting their engineering education during the coronavirus pandemic have been denied the opportunity to collaborate in-person with their peers. In-person peer interaction is crucial in the first year of engineering education, since a strong support system makes engineering education much easier. Students without a support system are much less likely to succeed.
Support systems offered by educational institutions are also limited. A student, for example, cannot go in-person to a professor’s office hours for help. The student must communicate through email or attempt to set up a call to explain the issue. These issues, which often involve complex discussion, equations, or diagrams, are much easier to work through in person.
Other support systems, such as clubs, teams, or study sessions, are also affected. Some of these support systems have ceased operations altogether. Others may offer only limited services. None can offer the same level of support and camaraderie when offered virtually as they could in-person. Building a race car as a team, for example, cannot be done virtually. Students are being robbed of once-in-a-lifetime experiences because of the pandemic.
Engineering institutions are doing the best they can with the limitations they have, but an online engineering experience cannot completely replicate in-person engineering education. Laboratory experiences and field trips cannot be offered when students are learning online. Their substitutes are often limited to discussions, simulations, or videos.
Some students choosing to enroll at an institution in another country are deciding to delay their enrollment. With travel restrictions in place and government regulations that can change at any time, studying internationally has become too unpredictable for many students. As a result, international student enrollment has decreased. Domestic student enrollment, on the other hand, has increased, as there is less competition from international students for engineering programs with a limited number of seats.
Most travel outside of a student’s home university, including to conferences, competitions, and study abroad programs, has been banned. These events have been moved to a virtual format. While students still get to experience these events, a virtual event cannot provide the same experiences as an in-person event.
Given the inherent limitations of online engineering education, some may choose to end their education without having had the chance to learn in person. As long as engineering education remains mostly online, fewer engineering students and fewer new engineers will be produced.
The lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the engineering profession
While the pandemic will eventually fade away, its effects on the engineering profession will not. Online learning could change students' minds about working in engineering, and it’s clear that many new engineers will have less experience because of the fewer engineering positions available. For the time being, at least, there will be fewer students and new engineers in the engineering profession. And this is a serious worry.
Ultimately, the coronavirus pandemic has made entering engineering more difficult. A small silver lining, though, may be that those who have started their engineering education or career during the pandemic, having overcome such unusual challenges, will have developed resilience and flexibility that could stand them in good stead going forward.