Is there an engineering deficit? The American Society of Engineering Education indicates there is a shortage of qualified engineers. For instance, compared to 20 years ago, 20,000 fewer students graduate each year with engineering degrees in the United States. 1 Moreover, the National Academies warns that this decrease "is threatening the nation's preeminent position within the global economy." 2 On the other hand, recent media articles argue that "the engineering deficit" may be a myth. 3
Despite these differences in opinions, there is rarely any arguement concerning the fire protection engineering deficit. Particularly, most fire protection engineers or employers who have tried to hire a fire protection engineer believe the demand for qualified fire protection engineers outweighs the supply. This article will discuss the issue of supply and demand for fire protection engineers and will focus on the Society of Fire Protection Engineers' (SFPE) plan to reduce this deficit.
Supply and Demand
Each year, over the last two years, SFPE surveys some of the largest employers of fire protection engineers about their recruitment activities. Over 25 employers from all of the major employment sectors in the profession were surveyed. The results of this survey clearly demonstrate that the demand for fire protection engineers far outpaces the supply.
For example, the overwhelming majority of employers surveyed who have attempted to hire a fire protection engineer over the last year indicated difficulties in finding qualified fire protection engineers (> 90%). Some of the leading reasons indicated by employers for these difficulties included:
- Not enough applicants in the geographic area (82%).
- Applicants did not have the required experience (43%).
- Applicants did not have the required education (35%).
- Applicants wanted more pay than could be offered (35%).
The employers surveyed also indicated that the average time to recruit and hire a fire protection engineer to be approximately five months.
In addition, employers were asked about their recruitment projections. The overall majority of those surveyed indicated they plan on hiring additional fire protection engineers in the future. And the overall majority of those surveyed predict continuing recruitment difficulties in the future.
There is a strong argument that a fire protection engineering shortage does exist. More importantly, this deficit is larger in certain geographical areas that do not have college programs in fire protection engineering (e. g., western and southern United States).
As a practicing fire protection engineer, there are many benefits when the market demands more jobs then the available supply. Some of these benefits include limitless job opportunities, higher salaries, and employment flexibility.
Nevertheless, the implications of this shortage are a cause for concern. Without keeping up with the demand, the profession cannot effectively grow and maintain its competitiveness with other design professionals.
Developing a Message
As a result of the demands to increase the fire protection engineering workforce, SFPE took action. In January 2003, SFPE assembled leaders of the profession to discuss strategies to reduce this shortage. This meeting included representatives from all major employment sectors of the profession. The following were some of the recommended strategies:
- Increasing the public's awareness of the profession;
- Informing the fire service of career possibilities in the profession;
- Engaging SFPE Chapters in recruitment activities; and
- Informing prospective FPE students at high schools and community colleges about career possibilities.
Since this meeting, SFPE has worked diligently to implement these strategies. Specifically, SFPE's recruitment efforts are now coordinated through the SFPE Public Awareness Committee (PAC). The PAC's mission is to recommend and oversee programs that are designed to enhance the public's awareness of the fire protection engineering profession.
In 2004, the PAC implemented three goals that were aimed at increasing the recognition of the profession (see Sidebar below). The second goal is focused on recruitment.
Although this may seem to be a lofty goal, the current shortage combined with the aging of the current workforce make it imperative for the profession to reach this goal.
Once goals were established, the next step was to define an appropriate audience. Without effectively identifying an audience that is interested in these goals, the messages would miss the mark.
To define the audience, the following question was asked: "Who cares?" That is, who would be interested in pursuing a degree and/or subsequent career in fire protection engineering? This question was answered by evaluating the different pathways a person may take to enter the profession. For example, if a person enters the profession by entering a bachelor's degree program in fire protection engineering after high school, he or she most likely made their decision as a high school student. Consequently, high school students and the parents of high school students were considered to be an important audience. Some of the other possible pathways are outlined in the following sidebar.
Next, it was determined that SFPE did not have a uniform message. Accordingly, the next step was to define the three points (messages) that were most important for the target audience to understand. By having clear and unified messages, the audience will consistently receive the most essential information.
When developing these messages, the following question was asked: "Why does the audience care?" If the audience cares about the message, they will take the time to understand it. Moreover, for these messages to be effective, they must be: a) understandable to the public; b) interesting to the media; and c) supportive of SFPE's goals.
After carefully considering a number of important reasons a person might consider a career in fire protection engineering, the following recruitment messages were developed:
- Fire protection engineers are in high demand. The number of jobs consistently outweighs the number of engineers available to fill them.
- A career in fire protection engineering pays well, provides opportunities for world travel, and offers the chance to work in a variety of environments.
- Fire protection engineers make the world a better place.
The objective is to highlight these messages when SFPE spokespersons talk to the media and to include these messages in all recruiting activities.
In 2005, the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project (EWEP) released a report. One of the goals of this report was to evaluate the current recruitment messages being put forward by the engineering community.
The EWEP report indicated that messages that "portray engineering as challenging and stress the importance of superior math and science abilities" are not relevant. Conversely, this report found that "high school girls react positively to personal and informational stories that tell more about the engineering lifestyle. They are interested in learning how engineering aligns with their career motivators enjoyable, good working environment, making a difference, good income, and flexibility." As it is with most engineering disciplines, since the number of women in the fire protection engineering profession is historically underrepresented and the SFPE recruitment messages correspond with the EWEP's recommendations, the results of this report are encouraging. 4
Getting the Word Out
Several strategies were implemented to get these messages to the appropriate audience. These strategies included: a) targeting the print media with news releases; b) developing a careers Web site/career guide; c) publishing a special issue of Fire Protection Engineering magazine; d) exhibiting at career fairs; e) supporting local SFPE chapters in career activities; f) partnering with other professional organizations; and g) working with institutions of higher education and the fire service to promote fire protection engineering education.
Targeting the print media. News releases are an inexpensive technique that gets a message out to a large audience. By issuing news releases that are specifically focused on the Society's recruitment activities, SFPE is getting the message out to its intended audience. Presently, news releases are being sent to media outlets from a national media list that has the capability of targeting career editors.
As a result of these news releases, career articles related to fire protection engineering were highlighted in some of the largest newspapers in the United States, including The Washington Post5 and The Chicago Tribune. 6 In addition, information from these news releases has been published on some of the most popular fire service Web sites: Firehouse Magazine7 and Fire Chief Magazine. 8
Besides news releases, an article about the career opportunities in fire protection engineering was authored. This article was published in American Careers Magazine. The audience for this magazine consists of thousands of high school students and their parents. 9
Careers Web site/career guide. In 2004, SFPE launched a new Web site that is specifically focused on careers in fire protection engineering (www.careersinfireprotectionengineering com). This Web site has a fresh look that is attractive to the target audience high school and college students. Included on this Web site is information that: a) defines the profession of fire protection engineering; b) discusses career opportunities for fire protection engineers; c) provides resources for parents and students; and d) describes how to prepare for college. This Web site received an Excellence in Association Publications Gold Award by Association Trends Magazine.
To assist in marketing the careers Web site, the SFPE career guide was also revised with a fresh new look. The main function of the career guide is to spark some interest in the profession and to point the audience to the careers Web site.
Special careers magazine issue. In conjunction with Fire Protection Engineering magazine and industry sponsors, SFPE published the first issue of Careers in Fire Protection Engineering in Fall, 2005. This special issue of Fire Protection Engineering magazine focused solely on promoting fire protection engineering as a career. The editorial for this issue featured two fire protection engineering graduates talking about their experiences in college and as fire protection engineers. 10 In addition to the normal circulation for the magazine, the special issue was circulated to approximately 7,000 college engineering faculty and 5,000 career counselors.
Career fairs. SFPE has recently exhibited at the Society of Women Engineers and Professional Society of Hispanic Engineers career fairs. There are additional plans to exhibit at other engineering career fairs in the future. These career fairs give SFPE the opportunity to introduce fire protection engineering to students from other engineering disciplines.
Local chapters. SFPE chapters also play an essential role in the recruitment effort. The opportunities for local chapter support are limitless. For example, local chapters have been very active by participating at local college and high school career fairs. Moreover, some local chapters have established recruitment committees that are responsible for recruiting in their local region.
One chapter hosts an annual seminar at a local college that highlights the different career opportunities in the profession. This seminar is well attended by students from several universities in the region. Also, many chapters offer financial assistance to local students in the form of scholarships.
Other professional organizations. SFPE is an affiliate member of Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS). The purpose of JETS is to inform and excite young people about careers in engineering. Their audience includes 40,000 high school students, 10,000 educators, and 150 colleges and universities. Among the many benefits of being a JETS affiliate, SFPE is listed on JETS' Web site (www.jets.org) and has an annual society spotlight article in its monthly e-newsletter, The Pre-Engineering Times. 11
SFPE also sponsors an award at the Annual Future Cities Competition that is part of the National Engineers Week Activities (last held February 19-25, 2006). This competition provides a fun and exciting way for seventh-and eighth-grade students to learn about the engineering profession. 12 In this competition, the students are required to design the best way to provide fire protection for a simulated city.
Higher education. One of the most important recruitment activities for the society involves working with colleges and universities to offer fire protection engineering education. For instance, engineering programs at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Tennessee now offer individual courses in fire protection engineering. By offering coursework in fire protection engineering, a key audience engineering students of other disciplines is exposed to the fire protection engineering profession. Individual SFPE members are also working with other colleges and universities to offer similar programs or start new fire protection engineering programs.
Fire service. In addition to engineering students, the fire service is another key recruitment audience. Currently, volunteers from SFPE are working with the United States Fire Administration's Fire Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) Group to develop three new associate's-level courses in topics related to fire protection engineering that will be part of the FESHE model curriculum. FESHE is responsible for developing a national higher education model for the fire and emergency services in the United States. Its programs range from the associate's through doctorate levels. 13 The new associate's courses are Human Behavior in Fire, Structural Fire Protection, and Performance-Based Fire Protection Design. Additionally, SFPE members have assisted the FESHE bachelor's program by assisting in the development of distance learning programs in fire dynamics, fire protection systems, and fire research methods.
What Fire Protection Engineers Can Do to Help
These are just some of the many recruitment strategies implemented by SFPE. Since the message is getting to the appropriate audience, the feedback from the current recruitment efforts has been encouraging. However, the profession is still far from its goal of quadrupling the number of qualified fire protection engineers.
In the future, SFPE intends to stay focused in these recruitment efforts. This includes the future production of a careers video that is being produced by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Fire Protection Engineering Program. This project was partially funded by local SFPE chapters.
Furthermore, for this profession to grow, the supply of fire protection engineers must keep up with the demand. The profession can no longer sit back and wait for things to get better. It is up to all fire protection engineers to get the society's recruitment messages out to the appropriate audience. Anyone who practices in this profession can tell their friends, families, and neighbors about how fire protection engineering is a rewarding profession. Additionally, local colleges and high schools are always looking for interesting speakers. Fire protection engineers can also help by supporting their local SFPE chapters with local recruiting efforts.
Chris Jelenewicz, P.E., is with the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.
SFPE's Public Awareness Goals
Goal 1: By 2014, the U.S. adult population will equate fire with life-threatening risk and know that FPEs work to provide solutions to mitigate these risks.
Goal 2: By 2014, the number of practicing FPEs will be quadruple the number practicing today.
Goal 3: By 2014, design professionals and AHJs will recognize that qualified FPEs have the specialized education, training, and experience to design, supervise, or approve fire protection and life-safety documents.
Pathways to Becoming a Fire Protection Engineer
Chris Jelenewicz, P.E., is with the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.
- "Engineering & Education." American Society of Engineering Educators, November 2005.
- Reid, R.L., "Vaporizing the Gathering Storm," Civil Engineering, 76, 3, 2006.
- "Behind Engineer Shortage: Employers are Choosy." Charlotte Sun-Herald, December 11, 2005.
- "The National Extraordinary Women Engineers Project," Extraordinary Women Engineers, April 2005.
- Slayter, M.E., "Off the Beaten Career Path, Protection Engineer's Mission is Fire Safety," The Washington Post, May 29, 2005.
- Kleiman, C., "What We Have Here is... a Failure to Communicate." The Chicago Tribune,. October 13, 2005.
- "Fire Guide Helps Students Prepare for a Future in Fire Protection Engineering." August 4, 2005. Found at: www.firehouse.com.
- "Demand Smokin' for Fire Protection Engineers." March 25, 2005. Found at: www.firechief.com.
- Valente, A., "Burning Ambition," American Careers, 2004-05.
- Careers in Fire Protection Engineering. Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Bethesda, MD, 2005.
- The Junior Engineering Technical Society Web site, www.JETS.org. January 2006.
- The Future City Competition Web site. www.futurecity.org, January 2006.
- United States Fire Administration Web site. https://www.usfa.fema.gov/index.html, January 2006.