Little girl in turquoise shirt and pink sweater stares off into the distance. She is standing in front of a chalkboard like background that has buildings of various sizes on it.
(Photograph courtesy of Productions; Illustration courtesy of

By Margaret M. Mitchell

Engineering is a profession that has a “concrete” image. And for years, students have been told — whether outright or through subtle messaging — that to be engineers, they must excel at math and science. Although there is no doubt that these are intrinsic elements of the discipline and some level of mastery is essential, there has been a shift to highlight some of the other aspects needed to be an engineer.  

To combat these potentially off-putting descriptors, a host of individuals from within and without the engineering community have convened over the years to change the messages that the profession sends to students and parents to let them know that engineering is open to many and offers a wide variety of opportunities to change the world.

“When we we change how we talk about engineering, we can change what students think about engineering.” That is the tagline of Discover Engineering’s Messages Matter 2023 report, the subject of discussion at a panel session, hosted by Civil Engineering, at the ASCE annual convention in October. The goal of this session was to present DiscoverE’s findings on the types of messages that are most likely to reach students and engage their interest in engineering as a career in an effort to boost the profession’s numbers as it faces a retirement-fueled pipeline crisis.

The panelists were Joel G. Burken, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, chair of the Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering Department at Missouri University of Science and Technology, past chair of the ASCE Department Heads Coordinating Council, and member of the 2023 Board Strategic Advisory Council Subcommittee on Workforce Development; Isamar Escobar, A.M.ASCE, ASCE at-large society director and civil engineer (highway construction) for the Federal Highway Administration – Western Federal Lands Highway Division; Susan Hoopes, director of programs at DiscoverE; and Patrick Natale, P.E., NAC, Dist.M.ASCE, executive director for the United Engineering Foundation and former ASCE executive director. The session was moderated by Jane Howell, Aff.M.ASCE, ASCE chief communications officer.

The numbers

The need for more civil engineers, if not dire, is certainly significant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected job growth rate from 2022 to 2032 for civil engineers is 5% — faster than the average (3%) for all occupations. As of 2022, the number of civil engineering jobs stood at 326,300, but by 2032, 342,500 civil engineers will be needed. In fact, the BLS estimates that there will be approximately 21,200 openings per year for civil engineers over that decade. The majority of those openings “are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire,” according to the BLS.

These numbers represent engineering roles that require bachelor’s degrees, but there are other, related jobs that will need filling — primarily civil engineering technologists and technicians — that do not require four-year degrees. The need for engineering technologists and technicians is not as great — a 1% job growth rate is predicted by the BLS over the 10-year period — but these skilled jobs are vital to a healthy economy. And those technologist/technician jobs can also be on-ramps toward careers as “full” engineers.

New federal spending will also add to the strain. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, coupled with President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, will create nearly 2 million new jobs per year over 10 years, according to a White House fact sheet. The IIJA allots $1.2 trillion in federal funding for bridges, roads, dams, transit systems, broadband, passenger rail networks, and much more, all areas civil engineers work in.

The solution may seem simple: Graduate more engineers. But determining how to do that is a complex matter. According to the 2022 edition of Engineering and Engineering Technology by the Numbers, a report from the American Society for Engineering Education, the total number of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded that year (excluding computer science outside engineering) was 141,826, with just 12,678 of those in civil engineering, 1,627 in civil/environmental engineering, and 1,400 in environmental engineering. That’s far below the need predicted by the BLS. To compare, in 2020, according to ASEE’s report of that year, there were 13,732 civil engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded, a decline of roughly 8% in two years.

What’s more, an unsurprising gender gap exists: 75.8% of engineering degrees were awarded to males and 24.2% to females in 2022. There were 24,725 bachelor’s degrees in engineering awarded to underrepresented minorities in 2022, with 2,875 in civil engineering, 282 in civil/environmental engineering, and 276 in environmental engineering.

What will it take to move the needle, to increase interest in all engineering disciplines? What messaging needs to be communicated early, repeatedly, and persuasively?

The reports: Raising Public Awareness

There has been a great deal of research in the last 20 years to try to answer these questions. Perhaps one of the earliest was Raising Public Awareness, a 2002 report from the National Academy of Engineering. It revealed that despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on programming by engineering organizations to increase the public’s awareness and understanding of what engineers do and the contributions they make, the public’s understanding remained low. These programs “had little or no measurable impact on public perceptions of engineering,” the 2002 report stated. Many of these organizations engaged in messaging to K-12 students that centered on the importance of math and science and how studying those subjects could lead to “rewarding, challenging, fun, exciting, creative careers in engineering.”

Two of the report’s nine recommendations for improving the public’s awareness of engineering formed the basis of subsequent research. First, there should be a coordinated public relations and public awareness campaign at the national level. Second, there should be consistent messages (slogans, taglines, etc.) for these campaigns, agreed to by the engineering community, that have been “developed through rigorous testing to ensure their effectiveness,” the RPA report stated.

The reports: Changing the Conversation

Six years later, the follow-up report Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering was released. It was the result of an 18-month qualitative and quantitative research study conducted by NAE’s Committee on Public Understanding of Engineering Messages. The committee’s charge was simple: Survey students (preteens and teens) and adults to ascertain the images these groups had of engineers in order to develop appropriate messages and taglines.

Teens and parents were asked to rank five messages in order of appeal. For teens, the ranking was:

1. Engineers make a world of difference.

2. Engineers are creative problem solvers.

3. Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety.

4. Engineers help shape the future.

5. Engineers connect science to the real world.

For adults, the rankings were similar, except “help shape the future” was third, and “essential to our health, happiness, and safety” was fourth. “Engineers make a world of difference” was also ranked the most believable and most relevant for the majority of respondents.

Researchers also asked students to describe their images of engineers, what they think engineers do, their thoughts on subjects they study in school, their thoughts on different types of engineering, and their career aspirations. Parents were asked to share their thoughts on the best career choices for their children. In addition, the researchers asked all participants to talk about the messages used to make engineering sound appealing.

The results were mixed. On a positive note, the public did not have a negative view of engineers. “In fact,” the report stated, “the public has a much more positive view of engineers than engineers seem to have of themselves.” However, the majority of the teens and adults surveyed felt that “engineering is not ‘for everyone,’ especially not for girls.” Furthermore, the research revealed that the public’s understanding of engineering was “strongly linked to just one aspect of the discipline — the need for mathematics and science skills.”

When asked about the attributes of engineers, the answer chosen most was “must be good at math and science,” indicating that “messages emphasizing ability in mathematics and science as a prerequisite to the study of engineering have been absorbed by both adults and teenagers,” per the report.

“We concluded that, if we continue to overly emphasize math and science in marketing or rebranding engineering, we are likely to alienate or scare off youngsters, rather than attract them to engineering,” the report asserted.

Furthermore, the researchers stated conclusively that “effective messaging will require different messages for different target audiences.”

The report had five recommendations for the engineering community:

1. Conduct “coordinated, consistent, effective communication to ‘reposition’ engineering.” One means would be to adopt a positioning statement.

2. Use the messages that resonated with participants in current and future outreach efforts. The messages used should match the audience.

3. Conduct further rigorous research to pinpoint and test several taglines to be used in a national awareness campaign.

4. Develop an online public relations toolkit.

5. Convene a “representative cross section” of the engineering community to devise the logistics, funding, and other components of a multiyear campaign to expand the public’s knowledge of engineering.

The reports: Messages Matter

In the years after Changing the Conversation, the engineering community revamped its image with new messaging: Engineering is not just hard hats and construction or just math and science. But 14 years later, it was time to see how well the engineering community was doing with its messaging and marketing. DiscoverE conducted its own research, the culmination of which was the 2023 report Messages Matter. DiscoverE is a coalition dedicated to “improving the understanding of engineering and providing every student with an engineering experience,” says Kathy Renzetti, DiscoverE’s executive director. (ASCE is a founding member of DiscoverE.)

The goals of Messages Matter were simple:

  • Gauge students’ and parents’ level of understanding and interest in engineering.
  • Assess general career motivators and values.
  • Evaluate current messages.
  • Explore new messaging and opportunities.
  • Identify differing attitudes and messaging opportunities by race, gender, and self-identified disabilities.

The methodology was straightforward: Global Strategy Group conducted two online nationwide panel surveys in 2022. In round 1 (May 3-17), GSG surveyed a diverse panel of 2,000 high schoolers to assess their attitudes toward and interest in engineering, their career aspirations, their motivators, and the appeal of prevailing engineering messages and themes, according to Renzetti.

Teens stare at a handheld windmill.
(Photograph courtesy of

GSG and DiscoverE used the results from round 1 for a second survey (Oct. 6-13), this time with revamped messages and engineering profiles. The goal was to determine if new information swayed students’ thinking in any way. In this round, GSG surveyed a diverse panel of 2,047 high school students and 1,000 parents. Some of the key findings follow.

Engineering has a “‘concrete’ image and a gender divide when it comes to students’ interest,” Messages Matter revealed. And just as with Changing the Conversation, the need to be good at math and science was still a prevailing thought. Along those lines, the findings showed that being good in math was the top deterrent to pursuing a career in engineering.

Mothers are the most trusted career advisers, followed by fathers and close friends. Adults whom students knew who worked in fields they would be interested in pursuing also made the list.

Seventy percent of students and 75% of parents considered college before a career to be the correct path. Additionally, financial security was a top concern for both groups as they planned next steps. Also, many participants did not know that a four-year degree is not always necessary for a career in engineering. An associate degree or even a high school diploma in some cases is all that is needed to be an engineering technician. “Technical jobs like providing support for water-quality testing, supervising and testing modifications to a manufacturing process to design out waste, and evaluating a new food additive to find out if it improves the texture of a breakfast cereal can all be done with a two-year associate degree,” per the report.

Survey responses showed that students’ interest in engineering increased when they met with engineers who looked like them or were shown profiles of engineers doing tasks that interested them; this was true of the base (those who had a strong interest in engineering at the outset) and the “movers” (those whose interest in engineering increased with exposure to engineers or their profiles).

Furthermore, to increase student interest, the report found that appealing messages are effective. Of the 14 tested messages, the top three were:

  • Engineering is a career that is open to everyone.
  • Engineering is a well-paid and prestigious field that sets students up for success.
  • Engineers make a world of difference.

While students in all demographics found “Engineering is a career that is open to everyone” the most appealing of all the messages, they also found it to be the least believable. This fact, says Renzetti, “presents the engineering community with an opportunity to make it believable, but it will require a communitywide effort.”

“Engineering is a well-paid and prestigious field that sets students up for success” and “Engineers can make a world of difference” were found to be appealing and believable, with the former statement addressing both groups’ worries about financial security.

Breaking down the results by gender, race, and disability uncovered the following:

For girls, seeing/reading biographies of female engineers was a key factor in raising interest, according to the report. Being presented with female role models helped girls see themselves in these roles. What’s more, girls tended to respond better when told the work would be “meaningful” versus that it would be “personally rewarding.” (Read the sidebar: “Women engineers are creating change in the world.”)

Boys most appreciated that the opportunities available in engineering do not necessarily require a bachelor’s degree. “Boys appear to be especially responsive once informed of these alternative entry points into the field,” the report states. “Personally rewarding” had a slight edge over “meaningful work.” Another popular message that appealed to boys highlighted the possibility of a career in developing video games.


For Black boys and girls, it was important to stress opportunities for work that is meaningful, pays well, and makes a difference in the world versus the community. And seeing is believing for this group as well; seeing role models who looked like them made it more real for them, especially if the gender of the engineer matched the target audience — a point more noticed with girls.


For Hispanic boys, making a difference in the world versus their communities was the most meaningful message as was having a well-paying career. For Hispanic girls, seeing women role models piqued their interest as did the message that engineering is a creative field, the report stated.

What garnered the most interest from Asian boys was more tech related: profiles of software engineers, video game developers, and computer programmers. The most appealing messages for them were those that emphasized making a world of difference and financial security. Like all girls, Asian girls responded best to role models who looked like them. “Profiles of female engineers working in varying engineering roles appealed the most to this group, and the ‘multiple career paths’ and ‘engineering is for everyone’ messages resonated best with girls,” the report stated.

Native American students, a smaller test sample size than other groups, were also drawn to role models like themselves and the possibility of intriguing work. “These students are similarly interested in profiles that allow them to imagine themselves as engineers doing interesting things,” the report found.

For those who identified as having disabilities, messages that emphasized good salaries and health, happiness, and safety resonated well. This group also found the idea that “engineering is for everyone” appealing — but not so believable. The report advises that the profession should stress this message “only if you are able to back it up with believable evidence that it is true for this target group.”

One thing learned from Changing the Conversation was that any messaging to students should be tailored as much as possible to the audience, and Messages Matter “further confirms that positive engineering messages are strengthened when accompanied by diverse profiles of engineers and technicians that allow youth to see themselves represented,” says Renzetti. “And while all role models and profiles are effective, role models with the same demographic, racial, and ethnic background as the students are the most powerful.”

The goal is to engage with students where they are, Renzetti says, “and not expect them to come to us. We need to use multiple avenues of communication and align our communications with their interests and goals.” Social media is one way to reach students where they are: YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok are the most popular, the report states.

Although the results obtained from Messages Matter are confirmatory and promising, “what’s challenging about these results is how little students’ perceptions about engineering have changed since the Changing the Conversation ... ” initiative, per the Messages Matter report. One recommendation is to launch a multiyear national messaging campaign to sustain a widespread interest in and knowledge of engineering — also a recommendation of Changing the Conversation.

Another recommendation: Take the necessary steps to make the message that “engineering is for everyone” more believable, which requires an all-hands-on-deck approach — from parents, teachers, administrators, employers, the media, and more. Part of making this message more believable is to show the myriad possibilities in the field, that a four-year degree is not the only path to a stable, well-paying job. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics environments should be “welcoming and inclusive,” starting in kindergarten and continuing through high school, college, and into the workplace, with various diversity-minded student initiatives, according to Messages Matter.

Messages Matter also encourages creating opportunities for parents/caregivers, families, and communities to learn more about engineering as well as strategies to support their children’s interest. This would encompass creating materials for K-12 teachers and “out-of-school-time” educators to use during STEM activities in their curricula, emphasizing demographic-specific messaging and role models, if possible.

The discussion: Sharing experiences

The research and data are compelling, surprising, and maybe even a little daunting. The right messaging matters, but more work needs to be done to increase the public’s understanding of and students’ interest in engineering. As mentioned above, Civil Engineering brought together four panelists to discuss DiscoverE’s findings and gauge how well engineering-related organizations and institutions of learning are doing at spreading the message of engineering’s possibilities and opportunities. It was a time for panelists and the audience to share their thoughts on current messaging.

DiscoverE’s efforts to move the needle are making an impact, reaching 5.5 million students and parents a year, said Susan Hoopes during the panel session. DiscoverE is the “backbone” organization behind Engineers Week — a week of activities that highlight what engineers, technologists, and technicians do and a time when students can meet engineers and have fun doing STEM activities.

Group of teens smile at the camera.
(Photograph courtesy of

Other DiscoverE initiatives include Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day and Chats with Changemakers (a program currently hosted by Kavya, a senior in high school) for elementary and middle school students. The program has been an effective way for students to interact with practicing engineers, learning what their jobs are like and what drew them to engineering. “At DiscoverE, we believe that if you place an engineer, an educator, and a student in a room, you can change the world,” said Hoopes. “And we’ve seen that in the programs and the impact that we have.”

DiscoverE also conducts the annual Future City competition, an event featured in ASCE’s latest IMAX film, Cities of the Future, released in February. In the competition, middle and high school students are tasked with a STEM challenge centered on a theme. This year it was building a city run solely on electricity. With 67,000 students participating in 2023, according to Hoopes, it certainly was a success.

Panelist Isamar Escobar said the profession should emphasize that engineers need to be problem solvers more than absolute experts in math and science — a concept put to the test during Future City competitions. “How many of you have done student activities with kids in K-12?” she asked the audience. “If you make a Popsicle bridge, do they have to give you an equation of how to build a bridge or how much load it’s holding? We literally don’t use any numbers (in that activity), and I think something as simple as that shows them, ‘Oh yeah. I didn’t have to use a calculator, but (I am) problem-solving.’”

Escobar participates in outreach activities through ASCE as well as with other organizations, and her main goal is helping students realize that problem-solving is part of everyday life. “For a lot of kids, no one tells them they can do that,” she said. This simple approach can be appealing to students because it gives them opportunities to learn and grow, a process, she said, that “does wonders.”

The concrete image civil engineering has can be changed, Escobar believes, by redefining what a civil engineer is. “More often than not it requires knowing how to communicate, knowing when to be creative, and being able to see the big picture,” Escobar said.

Additionally, she said instructors can be more encouraging. “I’ve heard many stories of students being told that if they aren’t good at math, they can’t be an engineer. That is (far) from the truth. Education institutions should be asking, ‘Do you want to change the world? Do you want to make a difference? Do you want to create more diverse, equitable, and livable communities?’”

Annahid Beheshti-Rhodes, P.E., M.ASCE, a senior civil engineer and project manager in Arup’s Boston office and an audience member during the session, agreed that the messages instructors send should be better. In some cases the messaging is “antiquated,” with instructors pushing students to drop a course after one bad exam. “I think this kind of flat discouragement is unnecessary, and it does not lead to a stronger and more diverse engineering community,” she said. “The goal should be encouragement, support, and ultimately retention — especially for demographics that aren’t heavily represented in our industry.”

Beheshti-Rhodes meets with college students through her work with Northeastern University’s ASCE student chapter and other outreach efforts. She says there is often a disconnect between college students’ understanding of sustainability and resilience and how they relate to civil engineering. These are “real concepts that all engineers — not just civil — can and actively do incorporate into their everyday work,” she said. “If you are passionate about sustainable design, your job title does not need to necessarily say ‘sustainability’ in it to implement those concepts.

“We should be telling students that if you are interested in a career where you can make tangible, positive changes to the world and to the built environment, then civil engineering is for you,” explained Beheshti-Rhodes. When she was growing up, she said, the messaging still had an emphasis on math and science and that engineers are introverts who work alone. “I think that messaging has kept a lot of people away from the field who might have been really great engineers.”

Joel Burken believes so strongly that engineers change the world that this is the opening message of his online address as chair of Missouri S&T’s Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering Department. He makes sure this message gets to students in a variety of ways, including hosting the Future City-Missouri championships. “I think the idea (behind) Future City is we build communities, we shape lives, and we make the world a better place,” he said. “That is what we should be selling to people.”

On campus, he also hosts activities on STEM Day during Engineers Week, with more than 800 students participating this year. The university also held its own Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day in February with help from local Society of Women Engineers chapters. Additionally, Missouri S&T makes use of what it calls STEM Mobiles to travel to schools, providing experiential learning opportunities for K-12 students. The school, through the Kummer Center for STEM Education, also holds 29 STEM-focused summer camps, during which students get a tour of the campus, and with 16 engineering majors, this is an experience that, he said, “opens their eyes to what engineering can be versus what their perception might be.”

Missouri S&T also partners with Missouri Green Schools, a statewide organization that provides programming and activities that help schools lower their environmental footprint, among other things, according to its website. Burken’s work with the students includes giving them a tour of an urban watershed. Experiences like these, he said, make it “very real for them to understand where water flows, what the issues are, and the impacts on human health. I think that’s one driver that we should really focus on: the impact (engineers) have on individuals through providing clean water and sanitation, resulting in prosperity and dignity.”

Patrick Natale’s experience with messaging is deep. He was part of the Committee on Public Understanding, which went on to create Changing the Conversation. What made that committee special, he said, is that it wasn’t just composed of engineers, but it included marketing professionals and people from other disciplines who worked alongside those in the engineering community. “I thought it was brilliant,” he said. Natale knows a bit about marketing. Although a civil engineer by education, he spent 28 years leading the marketing department at Public Service Electric and Gas Co. in New Jersey.

Perhaps the message he believes will move the needle the most is that engineering is a career that is open to everyone. Part of this message is that a person does not need a four-year degree to enter the field. And Natale is a proponent of the “engineering team” — a group of individuals that includes technicians and technologists with skill sets that can help engineers.

Another aspect of engineering as a career open to everyone is diversity. “Diversity has been a passion for my entire career,” said Natale, who is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers and served as the diversity officer at Mott MacDonald. Although engineering has become more inclusive and welcoming for girls and minorities, he said, the change has not been enough. To combat this problem, Natale sees the value of unconscious bias training and similar initiatives for managers and educators. “It’s about helping (leaders) be more effective.”

Natale also points out that projects such as Dream Big, ASCE’s first IMAX film, have made strides toward educating people about engineering. “Dream Big was a step in the right direction to get a broad message out there,” Natale said. “It has the wow factor.” The movie is a powerful illustration that engineers do cool things, he said, that “we make the world a better place and that we improve the quality of life for people.” He believes Cities of the Future will have a similar impact because it offers kids the chance to imagine what could be.

And although technical skills are important, Natale notes, he believes schools can do better at incorporating the nontechnical skills — communication, teamwork, public speaking, ethics, etc. — into the curricula. One program among many doing a good job with this, he says, is Villanova University’s Career Compass program, which is six, half-credit classes completed in students’ first six semesters.

Andrew Kline, S.M.ASCE, a senior at Villanova and president of the ASCE Student Presidential Group, who was in the audience during the panel, says one of the classes in the Career Compass program taken by all first-year, first-semester engineering students — Engineering Interdisciplinary — is all about training the brain to think differently. “There’s no math. There’s no software that you use. It’s just about how to problem-solve,” Kline said. He believes courses like these could help younger students as well. “I think there’s so much opportunity to weave that into high school, middle school education. Just taking a math class doesn’t make you an engineer,” he said. “It’s the other things that are really the skills that draw you to this career.”

It takes a community — parents, educators, engineering organizations, and others — to change the messaging, sustain it, and make it meaningful for succeeding generations of possible engineers. From the organization to the individual, everyone has a part to play in communicating the benefits, opportunities, and satisfaction that can be realized from a career in engineering. 

Margaret M. Mitchell is the editor in chief of Civil Engineering

This article first appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Civil Engineering as “Change the Message, Change the World.” To read about women who are making a difference, read the sidebar to this article: "Women engineers are creating change in the world.

Getting involved


ASCE offers a number of resources for those who wish to learn more and join the mission. 


Civil Engineering Clubs

Committee on Pre-College Outreach

Education Outreach: The Earliest Form of Advocacy

Mentor Match


Pre-College Training