The baby boom following the Second World War created the single largest generational group in Canadian history, which coincided with an era of sweeping economic growth and social change. But today those same boomers are beginning to retire, a trend that has major implications for the engineering profession in this country.

At its peak, the baby boom saw 400,000 live births annually between 1946 and 1965. It's therefore no surprise that these same people are now beginning to retire. As many as 250,000 having left the workforce in 2015, a number that is predicted to reach 425,000 per year in 2020, according to the Urban Futures Institute.

Of these retirees, a large portion will be engineers— in all, 100,000 engineers are expected to retire by 2025. To put this figure in perspective, there were 288,870 active members of Engineers Canada in 2016. A loss of 100,000 engineers is over one third of the cohort.

\“We are at a watershed moment in our profession’s history,” notes Professor Jim Nicell, the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at McGill University. “This shift is not merely the reduction of working capacity, but a vast amount of accumulated experience and knowledge. The combined total expertise of this generation of engineers is why we enjoy the high standard of living we have today.”

The obvious solution is to train more engineers, but this is where the issue becomes complicated, because the truth of the matter is that Canadians do not like to study engineering. This is particularly true with respect to graduate-level studies in engineering.

According to the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, in 2016 only 8 percent of Canadian graduate students were enrolled in engineering studies at Canadian universities. For comparison, 30 percent of international graduate students chose engineering.

When examined by gender, the figures are even more revelatory— 18 percent of Canadian men chose engineering, compared to 42 percent of international men. For women the difference is even more stark. Only 4 percent of Canadian women studied engineering at the graduate level, versus 17 percent of international women.

If Canadian women enrolled in graduate level engineering at the same rate as men, the number of engineers graduating with advanced degrees could be as high as 14,000 per year, a figure that would offset the number of retiring boomers.

But this is far from the current reality, where only 1,500 women are enrolled in graduate programs, and a similar number go on to become licenced engineers (1,470 newly licenced engineers in 2016 were women).

“The issue of gender balance is a crucial one, not just to our faculty, but to our entire society,” explains Nicell. “By increasing the number of female graduate students in our discipline, we believe we are making a real and enduring contribution to Canadian prosperity.”

With this vision in mind, McGill’s Faculty of Engineering has made concentrated efforts to increase female participation at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Success has been tangible, with both ratios (28 percent and 30 percent, respectively) at above national averages.

But diversity initiatives are only part of the solution. Providing opportunities and resources for entrepreneurship and offering experiential learning programs are also elements that enhance education for all levels of students in the faculty. These cross-cutting experiences result in engineers who are well-rounded, engaged, and able to work in a wide range of settings.

“The faculty’s goal is not simply to produce students who are capable of performing a series of predetermined tasks,” concludes Dean Nicell. “There is no value in that. Instead, our aim is to educate young people so that they are able to innovate in the real sense of the word— to solve our biggest and most pressing problems. That, to me, is what engineering is all about.”