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Messages Matter: Messaging Careers in Engineering


In the early 2000s, the engineering community came together around two initiatives designed to improve how we collectively portray ourselves to the public and, in particular, to pre-University students as they contemplate college majors and prospective career paths. What we discovered was that the traditional message that engineers solve problems using math and science didn’t resonate well with students, parents or teachers, and was actually discouraging girls from pursing engineering studies. Efforts were made to develop and use new tested messaging that emphasized creativity, teamwork and the important ways that engineering makes a difference and helps shape our world.

In anticipation of Engineers Week 2023, the United Engineering Foundation, Northrup Grumman, the National Society of Professional Engineers, and the STEM Next organization funded a new study to see how well this approach has worked, and whether the new messaging was holding up with the new generation of constantly “online and plugged-in” students.

What they discovered is that the “engineering is hard” image still prevails, and that the gender divide in career interest continues to persist. Most students and their parents associate engineering with “building, construction and making things,” and requires students to be “good at math and science.” A majority of students and their parents do think engineers are smart, creative and well-paid. But a much smaller percentage think engineering is rewarding, fun or makes a difference, and only 37% of students polled thought engineers were “well-respected,” compared to 48% of parents. Thirty-five percent of students thought of engineering as a male-dominated profession, and only 18% thought of engineering as being a diverse profession.

Interestingly, among parents, being an engineer was viewed more positively as a career than being a doctor, scientist, architect, lawyer, entrepreneur or teacher. This is encouraging because the survey also confirmed that students look to their parents for career advice. The study also found that financial security was a paramount consideration for both parents and students, a concern that was heightened by the pandemic.

Only 18% of students characterized themselves as very interested in engineering careers, with male students more than twice as interested as female students. Students think engineering is hard and requires skills they may not have. Math proficiency was cited as the number one reason for not pursuing engineering studies.

The typical engineering student comes from a demographic that is more likely to be white, male, attending a private or charter school, and planning to attend a four-year college. They represent approximately 13% of the overall student population. The majority of the student population (53%) is resistant to considering engineering careers. That leaves the 34% of individuals who have some interest and could be persuaded with the right messaging and incentives. These 34% tend to be Black and Hispanic females and individuals with disabilities. They tend to have non-college educated parents. They plan to attend community colleges, but are undecided about their future plans. The greatest concentrations of this “Mover” demographic is found in the northeast and south.

On the plus side, the survey confirmed that most students are undaunted by the challenges facing their generation, and are open to problem-solving and creating. The “Making a Difference” messaging resonates with students and parents, but they are as likely to focus on making a difference in their communities, as opposed to notions of “changing the world.” The majority were also more motivated by personal rewards than opportunities for meaningful work.

When survey participants were asked to name current, well-known engineers, 3% named Elon Musk. Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla were named by 1%. Eighty-seven percent couldn’t name one or named a family member who was an engineer. The study confirmed that student interest in engineering grows with exposure to the biographies of engineers. They also found that students found that video biographies of video game designers to be more appealing than the traditional go-to bios of NASA astronauts.

The study also tested the messages developed in 2006 to promote interest in engineering careers. They found that “Engineers Make a World of Difference” is still an appealing and believable message for the traditional base of interested students and for parents across all demographics, but that “Engineers Help Shape the Future” resonated better with the more diverse “Mover” demographic that remains on the fence about engineering careers. “Shaping the Future” was also the only message that had improved in “believability” from the 2006 study. Unfortunately, the message that “Engineering is a career that is open to everyone” has not gained resonance.

The study closes by reinforcing the importance of targeting messaging to reach specific audiences. Not only are different messages needed to attract boys versus girls, but messaging is more effective if targeted by race, ethnicity, disability and other factors. The study even advises that communication with students and parents should be tailored to their differing social media preferences.

To learn more about the survey and its results, see:


IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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