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Regents launch action plan to address statewide engineer and computer scientist shortage

AUSTIN – The University of Texas System Board of Regents today launched the first phase of a monumental initiative that will address the state’s critical need for more engineers and computer scientists.

The Texas Workforce Commission has projected that Texas will need 88,000 more engineers and computer scientists over the next decade to continue to attract new businesses and new jobs that will keep the state’s economy healthy.

The UT System’s action plan calls for increasing the number of bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees granted annually from roughly 5,100 today to 8,700 over the next 10 years. Initially the focus will be on recruiting quality faculty to accommodate increasing undergraduate enrollment, better preparing high school and community college students for UT engineering and computer science programs, increasing collaboration with industry and planting a larger UT flag in Houston, the energy capital of the nation.

Today, Regents authorized $10 million per year for the next two years to recruit and retain top engineering and computer science faculty through the Science and Technology Acquisition and Retention, or STARS, program. The funding will support UT institutions as they aggressively increase enrollment in engineering and computer science programs.

Regents also voted unanimously to allocate $2 million in start-up funding to create the UT Energy Research, Engineering and Education Institute in Houston. The institute will be a public-private partnership that will provide opportunities for students and faculty across Texas to collaborate with industry engineers and scientists.

“If the state of Texas is going to maintain its competitive edge, our institutions of higher education need to double the number of engineering and computer science degrees they grant,” Regents Chairman Paul Foster said. “The UT System is stepping up to the plate to do its part, and this is just the beginning of our concerted effort to improve and expand engineering and computer science programs at all UT institutions for the benefits of students, industry and our entire state.”

Today’s votes come on the heels of recommendations by the Task Force on Engineering Education for Texas in the 21st Century, which was formed by the Board of Regents in 2012. The task force spent months talking to industry leaders and UT institution engineering deans assessing how best to meet the demand for engineers and computer scientists. In late 2013, the Implementation Committee was appointed by Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., to develop an action plan based on the task force’s recommendations.

“This initiative by the UT System to significantly increase the number of engineers and computer scientists in Texas cannot come at a better time for the energy industry, an industry which is facing retirements of many of its experienced engineers in the coming years,” said Charles Davidson, Chairman and CEO of Houston-based Noble Energy, Inc. “In addition, the establishment of the UT Energy Research, Engineering and Education Institute here in Houston will fill a critical need for improved collaboration between Houston’s technology-driven companies, especially energy companies, and the research capabilities of the UT System’s faculty and students.

“Engineering and technology have been the drivers of America’s recent energy transformation, much of which was sourced from Houston companies,” Davidson added. “UT’s increased presence here will help provide important resources that will develop even better future energy solutions.”

The new institute in Houston will offer experimental test beds for various research, educational and non-competitive development and engineering projects. The institute will be owned and operated by the UT System as a not-for-profit company. Companies would pay a fee to be a member of the institute and benefit from the research of faculty and students, while students could participate in co-ops, internships and potentially job placement with member companies.

“It’s the proverbial win-win situation,” Chancellor Cigarroa said. “Students, faculty and members of industry can work together to develop new technology that could improve every aspect of our lives in areas ranging from greater energy production and alternative energy sources to biomedical engineering and health care to national security.”

To accommodate an increase in enrollment, UT institutions also will need to construct and equip additional engineering and computer science classrooms and teaching laboratories.

“This is going to require a significant investment in our institutions to recruit quality faculty and students, but we strongly believe that it will deliver dividends many times over for the entire state of Texas,” Cigarroa said. “We want Texas to have the strongest economy in the nation, which means this initiative will be most successful if implemented as a shared responsibility of higher education, industry, the Texas Legislature and the philanthropic community.”

The challenge will be recruiting substantially more students to UT engineering and computer science programs. Unfortunately, Texas currently is losing more high school students to out-of-state colleges than it gains, and data show that students who are educated in Texas tend to stay in Texas, said Bob Helms, the chairman of the Implementation Committee and a former executive in the semiconductor industry.

One way UT System hopes to strengthen and expand the engineering pipeline is through innovative online programs that will prepare high school and community college students for the rigor of UT engineering and computer science classes. UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning will develop UTx Engineering with funding previously approved by the Board of Regents.

“We believe that as UT engineering and computer science programs grow with quality facilities and faculty, the rankings of our programs will naturally rise and will draw more Texas and out-of- state students,” said Helms, a former dean of the UT Dallas School of Engineering and Computer Science who continues to teach there. “We also need to do a better job of marketing the profession and reminding students that this is a stable career that offers high-paying salaries.”

About the University of Texas System

Educating students, providing care for patients, conducting groundbreaking research and serving the needs of Texans and the nation for more than 130 years, The University of Texas System is one of the largest public university systems in the United States, with nine academic universities, six health institutions and a fall 2013 enrollment of more than 213,000. The UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees, educates two-thirds of the state’s health care professionals annually and accounts for almost 70 percent of all research funds awarded to public universities in Texas. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $14.6 billion (FY 2014) including $3 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. With about 90,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state.