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    Campaign looks to solve Memphis' engineering shortage

    By Ted Evanoff - The Commercial Appeal -

    Editor's note: This updated version corrects the name of the Herff College of Engineering.

    Regarded as a stately old river port, Memphis has long made its living on trade, hospitals and logistics.

    But the success of the current campaign to move beyond sales, cures and cargo and create high-wage bioscience jobs will hinge in part on locating something that is in tight supply — engineers.

    In an era when Tennessee colleges enroll more law students than graduate engineering students, Memphis plans to build a tech base around a skill set for which neither the city nor the South are known.

    "There is a shortage of engineers, not only in Memphis and the region, but there will be a shortage across the nation because not a lot of people have wanted to be engineers," said William Hagerman, advisory board chairman at the University of Memphis' Herff College of Engineering.

    The engineering college, the area's largest, employs 49 professors and recently opened a national search for their next boss. The new director, whose title will be Herff College dean, could play a pivotal role in ramping up U of M's engineering capacity.

    "Now more than ever, the engineering program at the university is right at the cross hairs of where we in Memphis want to be," said Steven Bares, director of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, an agency created in 2001 by local corporate and government leaders to spur the bioscience economy. "All those fields in the engineering college are vital to what Memphis wants to do."

    Engineers figure out how to make, blend, attach and bring together many of the ideas coming out of the city's various hospitals, labs and chemical and implant companies. In many of these places, the engineers are the innovators. They are considered crucial to Bioworks' effort to expand the economy around new patents and products that can attract capital and create tech jobs ranging from marketers and product designers to lab technicians.

    Currently, companies employ about 6,000 engineers in metropolitan Memphis, according to federal labor market data, although fewer than 1,100 are in the engineering fields considered central to bioscience. These include biomedical, chemical, electrical, electronic and mechanical engineers.

    No one is sure how many more engineers might be needed once the expansion kicks in. Tennessee only recently set up a $120 million state venture capital fund, began to expand the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the medical school in Memphis, and seed the Memphis Research Consortium, which will ally U of M, UTHSC and scientists in the hospitals.

    Right now, though, engineers are in short supply, partly because enrollment fell at U of M. About 800 engineering students are enrolled in undergraduate programs, down from more than 1,000 several years ago, Hagerman said. Graduate school enrollment, considered one sign of a college's research prowess, also has declined to less than 170 full-time students.

    Hagerman, a 1974 U of M graduate in civil engineering, said state budget cuts and the recession contributed to the fall off in enrollment. Businesses have noticed.

    "Finding local engineers is extremely difficult," said Eddy Hatcher, head of Management Recruiters of Cordova. "We're working with a company looking for a chemical engineer. We're talking to people in India."

    The trend persists nationwide, though the shortage is more acute away from the population centers in the Northeast, California and the Great Lakes. Throughout the nation, about 40 graduate engineering colleges enroll more than 1,000 students each, but only five are in the Southeast, while half are on the Pacific coast and between Baltimore, Boston and Pittsburgh, according to figures contained in 2013 "Best Grad Schools," a publication of U.S. News & World Report. The five engineering grad schools in Tennessee contain about 1,400 students, including 664 at UT-Knoxville and 450 at Vanderbilt University.

    Atlanta economist Donald Ratajczak, who has studied Southern business trends for more than three decades, said engineering never has been emphasized in the South, one reason the nation's tech boom happened elsewhere.

    "It's developing, but it's spotty" in the South, Ratajczak said. "If you look at computer science, most of that came out of colleges on the West Coast and in the Northeast. In the South, there wasn't much emphasis on computer engineering."

    That's held back the economy in metropolitan Memphis, while other Sunbelt cities with greater engineering resources have rebounded more surely from the recession. Here, 1 percent of all jobs filled in 2011 were in engineering, compared to 2 percent in New Orleans, 3 percent in Houston, 2.2 percent in Grand Rapids, Mich., according to federal labor data.

    Led by New Orleans, this trio showed the strongest recoveries among 100 U.S. urban areas. Memphis was ranked 70th in the June study prepared by Brookings Institution, a Washington research organization.

    Tech cities tend to make products. While Memphis has a diverse industrial base, employing about 44,000 workers, little of it is homegrown. Manufacturers put plants here but kept engineering and design in other states near the head office. Relatively few Memphians have been inclined to take the goods traded here and engineer them into products they make, noted U of M biomedical engineer Eugene Eckstein.

    "Why have the people of Memphis wanted to act as middlemen and traders rather than go into manufacturing?" said Eugene Eckstein, interim dean at U of M's engineering college.

    Reasons abound. One reflects the city's culture. Into the 20th Century, planters and traders marketed Delta cotton harvests worldwide. Many heirs have made their way into banks, investment and logistics firms.

    Hagerman, senior vice president at Dunavant Enterprises, a Memphis cotton trader that evolved into a global logistics firm, said the next engineering college dean can help bring the profession to the forefront of Memphians' career choices.

    "We can build our own talent and compete," Hagerman said. "We need a dean who has a lot of energy, who can get to know the community well, manages well and can drive the future for a big asset for this city."