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Is St. Louis a Top Engineering City?

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Historically, St. Louis has seen itself as a engineering-oriented sort of place. As the starting off point for people heading to the West, St. Louis’s blacksmiths made all sorts of products. Later in the 19th century, St. Louis on the river and at the hub or railroads, became a major manufacturing city. By the middle of the 20th Century, St. Louis was the nation’s second largest manufacturer of cars, and one of the five biggest for planes. Behind all that was an army of engineers – designing, building, and troubleshooting. We prided ourselves on our engineering achievements – ranging from the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft to the Gateway Arch.

With that tradition in all of our minds, we assume we remain one of the great engineering cities of the USA. Earlier this week Forbes published a piece by Joel Kotkin titled “America’s Engineering Hubs: The Cities With The Greatest Capacity For Innovation.” In it Joel reports on a study from the Houston Partnership that looked at the 85 largest metro areas in the country, ranked in terms of the number of engineers per capita. The Forbes piece mentions the Top 10, with San Jose tops at 45 engineers per 1000 employees. Number 10, Denver, was at 17. I personally reached out to Joel Kotkin and asked for our city’s ranking. He was kind enough to send me the complete list. St. Louis was 46th, with 10.6 engineers per 1000 employees. Kansas City was 53rd at 10.1.

This suggests that our historical recollection and modern situation might not be fitting together well. Why might that be? We have several fine engineering schools in the region – MUST, SLU and WashU immediately come to mind. Education News lists 24 in the state. One question though is do we need to grow these schools, or programs? If so, the state can take an aggressive role in promoting and supporting that type of growth, as can Missouri companies who are the eventual employer of so many of these graduates.

Another question is are we doing enough to keep graduates here. Today an increasing number of engineering students come from overseas, and the American visa system requires them to leave as soon as they finish, unless they can find a job and pay to get their work visa. This is basically forcing American-trained engineers to leave the country as soon as we finished adding value to their education. This problem can only be dealt with by the Congress.

The other issue is long-term. A lot of what is powering the high concentration of engineers in those Top 10 cities is a focus on the types of industries that make high levels of use of engineers. Those industries tend to be high-tech, and high-value-added sorts of industries. Today that includes St. Louis staples like aerospace and biotech, but also advanced manufacturing (think robotics), exotic materials (think nanotech), and of course IT and the Internet. St. Louis and Missouri is making strides in all of these areas. SLU attracted a top nanotech researcher (Eugene Pinkhassik) from the University of Memphis last year to anchor that campus’ efforts, and SLU’s not alone in that effort or area. But these areas need more support from state and local government, foundations and corporations to build these industries as eventual homes for the engineers we turn out.

Trained engineers are invariably a bright bunch. They know enough to go where the money is, and the money usually comes from the jobs. We need to make more engineering jobs to make Missouri the right place for our in-state-trained engineers to stay.

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