For many years now, because of what Kansas' most important companies have told him, one of Steve Morris' worst fears has been that the best companies in Kansas will one day leave because they can't find enough engineers.
Morris, president of the Kansas Senate, took a step toward addressing that fear Thursday with a plan to increase the engineering programs at Wichita State University, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas.
Saying there is a critical need for more engineers in aviation, biosciences and energy, senators announced the KAN-Grow Engineering Fund. It would combine state money and contributions from industry to equip and support prospective engineering students both in college and in K-12 education.
Kansas must expand capacity at its three schools of engineering if Kansas employers are to meet current and future work force needs, said Morris, R-Hugoton.
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The initiative described by senators on Thursday builds upon a $1 million investment proposed in Gov. Sam Brownback's budget recommendations for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The amount the state would invest would increase to $4 million beginning July 1, 2012, and $7 million the next year. The money would come from the state lottery.
The program, if approved by the Legislature, would authorize the state's board of regents to approve plans developed by the schools of engineering at the three universities to eventually increase the number of engineering graduates by 60 percent.
"Every year that we delay, we put our state's economic future in further risk," Morris said. "The good jobs (that home-grown engineers will receive due to KAN-Grow) will send ripples of the positive effects throughout our state's economy for years to come."
The effort is "being done for economic purposes," said Wichita State University president Don Beggs, who was with the senators in Topeka as they described their proposal. "We appreciate that the governor and the state, even in the toughest of economic times, has put dollars in."
Beggs also noted that there are good careers for anyone becoming an engineer.
Morris has said for years that he and other legislators are concerned about what might happen if Wichita's aircraft companies, or engineer-reliant Kansas City-area companies like Black & Veatch, Garmin and Burns & McDonnell, leave Kansas or outsource.
Those companies are at least 1,500 engineers short, and that is part of the reason Kansas is not growing economically.
Aviation leaders welcomed the announcement.
"Engineering plays a key role in helping to drive Spirit's business success, as well as the continued economic growth of our communities," said Jeff Turner, CEO of Spirit AeroSystems.
Jack Pelton, chairman, president and CEO of Cessna Aircraft Co., said additional engineers are key to Cessna's competitiveness.
"A shortage of creative, tech-adept engineers is among the greatest threats to profitable growth," he said.
The need for the program is especially critical given Boeing Co.' s announcement that it will build the next generation of air refueling tankers, said Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Wichita. "But even beyond aviation, we have a wind energy industry growing statewide with manufacturing setting up in Hutchinson and Newton already."
Beggs said industry leaders have told him that the lack of engineers forces companies to hold off on hiring other people. "If you can't design something, then you can't build it," Beggs said.
What typically happens at WSU, Beggs said, is that the engineering school attracts a good crop of freshmen every year.
"But by the time those students become juniors, the engineering school has lost half of them."
Reasons for switching majors include the difficulty of engineering courses and the fact that anyone bright and disciplined enough to become an engineer "is also very capable of becoming many other things."
Zulma Toro-Ramos, dean of WSU's College of Engineering, could not be reached for comment on Thursday. But two years ago, when she was interviewed about Sen. Morris' efforts to expand the pool of engineers, she said that of the 1,100 undergraduates at WSU seeking a bachelor's degree in engineering in 2008, 25 percent were foreign-born. And of the 600 graduate students seeking an engineering degree at WSU at that time, 75 percent were foreign-born, mostly from India, China and Malaysia.