UGA engineers a new path to fulfill needs

In October 2011, the deadline for early admission to UGA approached and Andrew Swicegood, a student from Macon, had already applied to civil engineering programs at Vanderbilt and Clemson universities. He thought to himself, “I better make sure Georgia doesn’t have this major, or I’m going to be kicking myself.”

When Swicegood checked online and found civil engineering was a new major at UGA he quickly sent in his application to become a member of the College of Engineering’s inaugural class. He says other UGA students are surprised when he tells them his major.

“When I say civil engineering, they haven’t heard of that before. I was intending not to come to Georgia because I didn’t want to be like anybody else from my town, but now I realize it’s super unique because civil engineering just started,” he says.

The new College of Engineering—UGA’s 17th college or school—is a significant step toward keeping students like Swicegood in state for college and hopefully longer. Georgia has well below the national average of graduates with bachelor’s degrees in engineering and is trying to catch up to meet the existing demand from Georgia companies-and attract new opportunities.

Companies have been forced to look to other states and countries to fill as many as half of all engineering jobs in the state, according to a 2002 report by Washington Advisory Group commissioned by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

More than 180 years after UGA began offering engineering classes, the College of Engineering now offers six undergraduate degrees and seven graduate degrees. In fall 2013, electrical and electronics engineering and mechanical engineering programs will launch, expanding the number of undergraduate engineering degree programs at UGA to eight.

The college expects to expand from about 640 undergraduate and 70 graduate engineering students in fall 2012 to more than 1,300 students by fall 2015. The faculty is expected to grow from 46 to 58 faculty members in that time frame. UGA believes building a comprehensive engineering program will make the university more competitive in attracting faculty and garnering funding for research, which is critical to the College of Engineering.

The impact of training and preparing more students to fill in-demand and high-paying engineering jobs in Georgia could be substantial. If 200 additional engineers in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering were added to the Georgia workforce, the annual economic impact to the state would be $10.5 million, based on an average entry-level salary of $52,549 (according to the Georgia Department of Labor).

Companies, from Georgia Power to small engineering firms, are seeking to hire graduates who can bring practical skills to the workforce. UGA’s education offers project-based learning and teamwork exercises in addition to mastering theory and concepts of engineering. The new College of Engineering has piqued the interest of businesses that are approaching UGA about creating internships and co-op programs.

“It’s been rewarding to observe the corporate and industry reaction,” says interim Dean Dale Threadgill, who has served as director of UGA’s Faculty of Engineering since 2001. “These were companies that weren’t talking to us before. They didn’t give us the time of day.”

Threadgill says companies tell him some job candidates from other schools are too focused on theory rather than practical knowledge and don’t bring relevant skills into the workplace. Other graduates head straight into research, passing by open positions for engineers.

Students and alumni say being affiliated with UGA’s new College of Engineering could give more recognition and validity in the eyes of employers, on top of the skills they’ve gained from the faculty and courses.

“I felt like I basically was able to hit the ground running once I started working and that the skills that I learned in the engineering classes at UGA did really prepare me for that,” says Julie Secrist, a 2006 graduate who works for an Atlanta engineering firm.