Engineering is one of the fastest-growing fields of employment in Alaska and demand is likely to outstrip supply for some time to come.For the short term, federal funding for transportation and defense projects is likely to keep business brisk for providers of engineering services and for engineers.In the long term, the demographic time bomb that will affect the entire work force -- a decline in the numbers of young people entering universities -- will affect engineering as well as other professions, according to Tom Miller, interim director of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Engineering.For its part, the University of Alaska is doing its best to ramp up engineering programs on all three of its main campuses in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau, Miller said. For years Alaska-based engineering firms have had a tough time finding qualified staff.If the state university can produce more people trained in the various engineering disciplines, private sector recruiting costs will fall, he said. There’s also a correlation that has been documented between economic development in a region and the number of people there who are educated and trained in sciences and engineering.More people with university degrees in science and engineering seems to translate to a faster-growing, more prosperous economy, Miller said.Within the state, the University of Alaska Fairbanks has been the backbone of the engineering program, with undergraduate and graduate programs in electrical, mechanical, civil, petroleum and minerals engineering.The University of Alaska Anchorage has had a graduate program in engineering management and an undergraduate civil engineering program for years. An associate degree program is also offered in geomatics, dealing with surveying, geographic information systems and related fields.A collaborative program between the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses began in 1997. The program allows students in mechanical and electrical engineering to take their first two years in Anchorage and the final two years at the Fairbanks campus.Graduate-level engineering programs in Anchorage have also been expanded. Master’s programs are now offered in civil and environmental quality engineering and in arctic engineering, a subset of civil specializing in cold regions.An effort is also now underway to expand engineering programs to the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. What’s being considered there is a focus on transportation engineering."The university is doing some good things in engineering," Miller said.University of Alaska Anchorage, for example, has developed an innovative program for minority, mainly Alaska Native students in engineering and science that is reporting success.Herb Schroeder, a former civil engineer for VECO Alaska Inc., a local construction and oil service company, is a UAA associate professor in charge of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. The most notable accomplishment of the program, now 5 years old, is that 70 percent of the students are still in the undergraduate engineering program three and four years after starting, a striking difference with the national average of 27 percent for Native Americans and about 35 percent for all students in engineering."Herb is really onto something here. There’s something significant going on," said Miller.Schroeder is now working to find ways to apply the program’s successes to the entire university. "The techniques he is developing to retain Alaska Native students in engineering and sciences, very difficult areas of study, can be applied to all fields," Miller said.Another innovative thing the program is doing is reaching out to rural high schools to stimulate an early interest in science and engineering.A National Science Foundation grant has now allowed the program to be expanded to the Fairbanks campus and also to First American students at the University of Hawaii and the University of Washington.UAA’s School of Engineering is also reaching out to local employers to determine their needs. One recent survey, for example, found a need for computer systems engineers, or people with training in both electrical engineering and computer science, Miller said.These skills are needed across a broad range of industries. One example is in health care, Miller said. This is a real growth field, where a high degree of training and skill is required to operate and maintain sophisticated biomedical instruments and equipment, he said.UAA is now trying to determine how many people are now employed as technicians in jobs that normally require an engineering degree, Miller said. The university could offer these people a way to upgrade their skills and obtain a degree.The profession faces big challenges, however. In an effort to increase the supply of engineers, one of the problems facing all universities, not just Alaska’s, is improving the dismal retention rate in engineering schools, Miller said.On a national average, only about 35 percent, about one in three, students who enter university engineering programs finish their programs. Almost all of them graduate, but with degrees in other fields.Why do so many beginning engineering studies switch to other fields? Partly because studying engineering is hard work and the program is long, Miller believes.While it’s possible to get an undergraduate degree in engineering in four years, it means taking five to six classes per semester, he said. This translates to workweeks of 60 to 80 hours."You have to be really committed to be working at the library when all your friends are out playing," Miller said. Most engineering students need four and a half or even five years to finish.The payoff comes after finishing school and an engineering graduate lands a good job and begins a rewarding career.But it’s hard for an 18-year-old beginning university student to see that, Miller said. It’s possible in other fields to take general exploratory courses during the freshman and sophomore years and then specialize, to get a degree in, for example, business or education.That’s not so in engineering, Miller said. Engineering studies begin in the first year.Given these challenges, there’s a lot of thought being given in engineering schools about how to make these programs more attractive. Some thought is being given to "outcome based" curriculums, where progress through a program is based less on "seat time" in classes and more on demonstration of proficiency at various levels.This has to be done without diminishing the quality of engineering education, however. "One difference between engineering and other fields, like business, is that your work affects life and safety," Miller said. "There are real risks in decisions made by an underqualified engineer."