Engineering a Better Future for Rhode Island
Imagine what life in Rhode Island would be without the Newport Bridge or the Providence Waterfront? Without companies like Hasbro, Amgen, and Raytheon? Without cell phones, power plants, satellites, submarines, pharmaceuticals, and pipelines? All of these things depend in some way or another on engineers.
Engineering plays a significant role in the state’s economic future, from the creation of new products and technologies to the construction of buildings and infrastructure to the improvement of existing processes and systems. The legislature and governor have expressed a firm commitment to supporting engineering education and research as well as creating a nurturing environment for engineering-centric companies in the state.
This research explores the impact of engineering on Rhode Island’s economy, as well as opportunities to strengthen the state’s engineering capacity through workforce development and university-industry partnerships. Data on the profession was compiled from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Rhode Island state agencies. In addition, a survey was conducted with engineers and business leaders from Rhode Island companies related to engineering.
Fig 1. Types of Engineering Jobs & Associated Salaries
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018).1
The Importance of Engineering
Engineering is the application of scientific knowledge to the needs of society. There are many kinds of engineers who work in a variety of different industries where technical, scientific, and mathematical skills are needed. Experienced engineers also assume management and senior leadership positions. Engineering is critical to industries including construction, manufacturing, defense, utilities, information technology, communications, pharmaceuticals, and medicine.
There are 7,110 individuals employed in engineering occupations in Rhode Island. 2,731 of these are licensed professional engineers who have completed the training and examinations necessary to be licensed by the state.(a) Engineering projects that directly affect people’s health and safety, such as structural plans for buildings, must be reviewed and supervised by a licensed professional engineer. In addition to professionally trained and licensed engineers, companies also employ engineering technicians, who may not hold an engineering degree but perform jobs that support the operation and maintenance of engineered systems.
(a) To receive a professional license, engineers must take two comprehensive examinations and complete supervised training. The first exam, sometimes called the “Engineer in Training” exam, is completed right after an engineer obtains their B.S. degree. The engineer must then work under the direct supervision of a licensed professional engineer for five years. At that time they are eligible to take the professional engineering (P.E.) exam. If they pass this exam, they are granted a P.E. license by the state board of professional engineers.
Fig 2a. Number of Engineers in Rhode Island
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017).2
Fig 2b. Number of Engineers in Rhode Island, 2000-2016
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017).2
Engineering occupations offer some of the best paying jobs in Rhode Island. Nationally, students with an engineering degree are among the highest earning college graduates.3 Yearly salaries for engineers in Rhode Island typically range from $85,000 to $115,000, depending on the type of engineer. This is well above the average annual wage of $51,920 across all occupations in Rhode Island. Salaries for engineering technicians are somewhat lower, at around $60,000.2
Engineering creates significant economic value for the state. It has been key to the establishment of profitable and prosperous companies and divisions that have a strong impact on Rhode Island’s economy, including Amtrol, Raytheon, Amgen, Hasbro, Toray, Teknor-Apex, Hope Global, Chemart, FM Global, Taco, Hexagon, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, J. H. Lynch and Sons, Cardi Corporation, and D'Ambra Construction Company.
These companies create tax revenue and economic growth. There are also significant spillover effects as the innovation, creative technologies, and ideas generated by engineers permeate the state’s economy in a number of ways. University, industry, and government lab research and development programs result in the generation of new patents, ideas, and technologies that can foster new high-technology companies in Rhode Island and elsewhere.
Engineering-centric companies also employ thousands of workers who then contribute to the state’s economy as consumers and taxpayers. In a typical company employing engineers to support its core mission, dozens of other categories of workers are employed to support the engineer’s work in construction, manufacturing, operations, and maintenance.
Fig 3a. Average Salaries for Engineers in Rhode Island
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017).2
Figi 3b. Average Salaries for Engineers in Rhode Island, 2000-2016
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017).2
Perspectives on the Future of Engineering in Rhode Island
To better understand the future of engineering in Rhode Island, an open-ended survey was conducted with 63 engineers and business leaders in the state. Some of the surveys were completed over email while others were conducted as in-person interviews. The survey participants were primarily engineers who have risen into management or owners and executives at companies with a substantial focus on engineering. Most have been in the field for 20 years or more.
The participants in the survey were from a range of companies, including those in engineering-centric industries like manufacturing and construction as well as other types of businesses like insurance and consulting. Their organizations rely on engineers for tasks such as the research and development of new products and technologies, the design and optimization of manufacturing processes and general operations, and the design and construction of buildings and infrastructure.
The survey participants indicated that engineering drives innovation in their fields in a number of ways. It fosters new products and processes and innovative solutions to problems. It pushes the boundaries of technology in areas like machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, and advanced computing tools. Participants expressed that the value of engineers lies not only in their technical skills, but also in their problem-solving abilities and creativity. “Engineers have the skills to analyze, design, and create improved new solutions,” according to one respondent.
In the coming years, survey participants anticipate a need in Rhode Island for more engineers, technicians, scientists, and architects, as well as technologically-savvy workers in non-technical positions like sales, marketing, and management. “We need young creative thinkers,” said one participant, while another emphasized the importance of a “creative thinking, risk-taking culture.” Some participants indicated that engineers play important roles throughout their organizations, even in non-technical positions. According to one respondent, “Our engineers advance through the ranks to fill key company positions, all the way up to CEO.”
Training the Next Generation of Engineers
Rhode Island’s universities play an important role in training future engineers and other technically skilled workers for the state’s labor force. University of Rhode Island (URI), Brown University, Roger Williams University, and New England Institute of Technology all offer ABET accredited Bachelors of Science in engineering programs.(b) Accredited degrees are required for government engineering jobs and for becoming licensed as a professional engineer. Johnson & Wales recently introduced five undergraduate engineering programs in its new College for Engineering and Design, but they are not yet accredited.
(b) ABET, Inc. (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) is the entity that accredits engineering, science, computing, and technology programs at U.S. colleges and universities. It primarily accredits B.S. degrees.
Fig 4. Accredited Undergraduate Engineering Programs in Rhode Island
Source: ABGT.com, Accredited Programs
Many schools in Rhode Island are expanding their engineering programs, as well as offerings in related science and technology fields. URI and Brown are growing their engineering research programs by increasing the number of faculty and graduate students and improving research laboratories and facilities. Roger Williams, URI, Brown, and Johnson & Wales are all in the process of constructing new, multimillion-dollar engineering buildings that will allow them to accommodate more students and faculty in the coming years.
Through new construction and renovations, URI will add 195,000 square feet of space for engineering teaching and research by 2019 at a total cost of $150 million. Goals for the new space include the engagement of industry and government in supporting engineering research and development through incubator spaces and new company formation. Brown is constructing a new engineering building that will cost $88 million and span 80,000 square feet. It will be dedicated for engineering research activities and to support graduate programs. Roger Williams is in the early stages of developing a new engineering building that will house experiential learning centers, collaborative design spaces, and research and technical labs.4
The engineering and business leaders surveyed for this study felt it was important that college engineering curricula offer opportunities for experiential learning, vocational training, and other “hands on” applications that are “relevant to the needs of today’s companies.” One participant said, “Teach them that it is ok to get their hands dirty and that all the work will not be on a computer.” Another respondent suggested that, in addition to technical skills, engineers need strong oral and written communication skills for interacting with colleagues and clients.
Survey participants suggested a number of other ways universities can help Rhode Island develop a stronger engineering workforce. Universities could build closer ties with businesses to create “more active, continuous… advance promotion of students available for internships.” Providing opportunities for students to gain specialized experience in their areas of interest could improve their job prospects after graduation. Universities could also work with companies to improve processes for onboarding new hires and support ongoing training and professional development opportunities.
In addition to helping train the engineering workforce, universities also support engineering-related industries through their research and development activities. Survey participants emphasized the importance of corporate partnerships and “strong working relationships with top management, as well as key middle managers and practitioners.” Universities can offer fresh perspectives, new technologies, and expertise in the latest analysis and design tools. Rhode Island Commerce has actively engaged in creating partnership opportunities between industry and academia to provide new creative talent to local companies and encourage new corporate investments in the state.
One additional concern related to education and workforce development was identified in the course of this research. The career preparation materials created by the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (RIDLT) for K-12 teachers and students contain very limited information on engineering careers. Rhode Island’s K-12 curriculum introduces students to engineering and technology topics and skills, yet RIDLT publications say little about careers that would provide an opportunity to implement this knowledge. RIDLT might consider partnering with engineering education programs at local universities to include engineering career paths in their K-12 teacher and student brochures and materials.
Engineering Rhode Island’s Economic Future
Engineers design and produce cutting-edge technologies, products, systems, and infrastructure that improve the quality of our lives and directly impact on our state’s economic prosperity. When asked how the state could help support engineering, survey participants offered a number of suggestions. Several discussed the importance of ensuring Rhode Island has an educated, skilled workforce. Rather than an issue of inadequate educational capacity, respondents suggested the problem is how to avoid “brain drain” and incentivize engineering students to stay in the state after graduation. One way to do this is to ensure a supply of good engineering jobs by making targeted efforts to attract technical businesses to the state and to match trained engineers with employer needs.
These and other efforts to support engineering are essential to Rhode Island’s economic prosperity. Engineering-centric companies in the state contribute good-paying jobs, tax revenue, innovation, and economic growth. According to Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, the industries and innovation supported by engineering are essential to Rhode Island’s economic future. “Expanding the state’s technology-oriented advanced industries is going to be critical to Rhode Island’s future prosperity, and engineering [is] absolutely central to that,” Muro said to The Providence Journal in 2016.4
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018) “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Architecture and Engineering Occupations,” Washington, DC.
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017) “Occupational Employment Statistics: May 2016 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates Rhode Island,” Washington, DC.
3. Payscale (2018) “2017-2018 College Salary Report,” Seattle, WA.
4. G. Wayne Miller (2016) “Colleges build R.I.’s engineering future,” Providence Journal, August 13.
How can Rhode Island strengthen and expand its engineering capacity?
Type of Research