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Lance Pérez

Engineering

Growing the Engineering Workforce

By Jackie Ostrowicki

April 2023

Did you walk across a bridge, drive your car down a road or use an appliance today? If so, you can thank an engineer.

Engineers have a role in creating a variety of structures and products, from airports to zippers. In fact, engineers play a major part in virtually every aspect of daily life. They design transportation systems, buildings, water supplies and energy infrastructure.

Engineers enable all aspects of digital infrastructure, from smartphones to 5G wireless networks to the cloud—and create systems to keep data secure. In healthcare, engineers pioneer solutions for diagnosing and treating disease and improve the way in which patients receive care.

According to the , the engineering workforce needs to grow substantially to meet increasing demand, fill new jobs and replace retiring baby boomers.

“As a college of engineering at a land grant institution, workforce and economic development have always been part of our mission. Our country’s leaders foresaw that agriculture and engineering were key to the economic development of individual states and the United States as a whole.”

—Dean Lance C. Pérez

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s College of Engineering enrolls over 3,500 undergraduate and around 590 graduate students. Each year, hundreds of students earn engineering degrees. But Nebraska’s workforce could use more.

Dr. Lance C. Pérez is the dean at the College of Engineering. He is leading an ambitious strategic plan for the college—which includes growing undergraduate and graduate enrollment, faculty, research expenditures and rankings.

From NASA and Race Cars to Telecommunication

Pérez has been interested in engineering since he was a young boy. His father was a mechanic, so Pérez grew up working on cars, intensely curious as to how they worked and were designed. His mother interned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a "calculator," someone who solved math problems for engineers.

“I still remember the Apollo 11 moon landing,” Pérez said. “I was fascinated by how they transmitted voice and video between the spacecraft and the moon.”

He received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia, then completed both his master’s and doctorate at the University of Notre Dame—all in electrical engineering.

Lance C. Pérez has been dean at the College of Engineering since May 2018. He is leading an ambitious strategic plan for the college—which includes growing undergraduate and graduate enrollment, faculty, research expenditures and rankings.

“My dissertation was partially funded by NASA,” Pérez said. “We were designing communication systems for deep space probes and for NASA's satellite system.”

He and his wife came to Nebraska almost 27 years ago after falling in love with Lincoln and the University of Nebraska. The Pérezes found it a friendly place filled with great people and the perfect place to raise a family. After serving in multiple leadership roles across UNL, Pérez was selected as the engineering dean in May 2018 after serving two years as interim dean.

Training Students for the Workforce

“As a college of engineering at a land grant institution, workforce and economic development have always been part of our mission,” Pérez said. “Our country’s leaders foresaw that agriculture and engineering were key to the economic development of individual states and the United States as a whole.”

UNL has the only college of engineering in the state of Nebraska. That means it develops the vast majority of the state's engineering workforce.

“Engineering degrees continue to be an incredible path for upward economic mobility. There is a huge demand for engineers; our students who graduate with degrees in engineering, construction or computing get multiple job offers.”

—Dean Lance C. Pérez

“Nebraska’s workforce needs in engineering and technology are huge. There are thousands of unfilled jobs right now,” Pérez said. “If you look at different sectors of Nebraska’s economy—whether that be insurance, banking, construction, manufacturing or agriculture—all those industries are increasingly dependent on engineering and technology.”

Pérez is looking to grow the college, produce more graduates to meet that demand and attract new companies to Nebraska.

“Engineering degrees continue to be an incredible path for upward economic mobility. There is a huge demand for engineers; our students who graduate with degrees in engineering, construction or computing get multiple job offers.”

Most students stay in the Midwest, but others who leave become part of the boomerang effect.

“For example, a brand-new graduate gets an offer from Amazon and goes out to Seattle for five years,” Pérez said. “Then they consider starting a family and decide to come back.”

Along with creating a strong technical foundation, the college is committed to helping students enhance non-technical competencies such as communication, leadership, teamwork and ethics.

Luke Bogus, a College of Engineering and Raikes School of Computer Science graduate, began his professional career as a program manager for Microsoft in Washington State. He is now a product manager for Vial, a biotech company that is based out of San Francisco.

“UNL prepared me to work at one of the biggest tech companies in the world,” Bogus said. “Eventually, I hope to bring my collective experiences back to Nebraska.”

A Perfect Combination of Experience

Why are College of Engineering graduates so popular? Part of the reason is their fully accredited Big Ten engineering education.

Another reason is the Complete Engineer® program, which is unique in the country. The program provides students with essential skills that are important to succeed in the workforce, including communication, leadership, ethics and professional responsibility.

“We developed the Complete Engineer® program to give our students a rich, deep set of experiences and skills in the non-technical area. This ensures that they're better prepared for their professional roles,” Pérez said.

“We developed the Complete Engineer® program to give our students a rich, deep set of experiences and skills in the non-technical area. This ensures that they're better prepared for their professional roles.”

—Dean Lance C. Pérez

“The vast majority of our students complete at least one internship, so they've also had practical experience. We're fortunate that Nebraska companies have been great partners with us in providing students with internships.”

At the end of the day, College of Engineering students graduate with a world-class technical education in engineering, construction or computing, a set of non-technical skills and work experience—fully prepared to enter the workforce.

Growing the Research Enterprise

The College of Engineering is focused on driving economic development in the state and the region—while solving problems of global importance. Engineering and technology research plays an important role.

“With respect to research goals, we’ve boiled it down to two numbers. First, we want to grow our graduate student population from 590 students to 1,100 students. Second, we want to grow our research expenditures from $33 million to $125 million,” Pérez said.

“You need good faculty to attract and keep students. You need good faculty to do great research. And ultimately, industry looks to good faculty to help them solve problems.”

Drone Amplified’s fireball-dropping drones are on the frontlines of wildfire prevention—reducing huge wildfires by using fire in a safe and managed way.

Faculty can also create new jobs and more opportunities for engineering graduates through startup companies.

One of these companies is , which puts drones to work managing wildfires and controlled burns. Its fireball-dropping drones are on the —reducing huge wildfires by using fire in a safe and managed way. The company was founded by Dr. Carrick Detweiler, a College of Engineering faculty member.

“Drone Amplified hires graduates who may have otherwise taken jobs out of state. Half of our current employees are UNL graduates,” Detweiler said. “We also bring people to Nebraska—we’ve had employees who came back to Nebraska to join the company.”

Drone Amplified also involves undergraduate students in research.

“This gives students a leg up in being able to see the practical applications of their courses. They learn to bring together multiple skills to solve real-world problems,” Detweiler said.

“Drone Amplified hires graduates who may have otherwise taken jobs out of state. Half of our current employees are UNL graduates. We also bring people to Nebraska—we’ve had employees who came back to Nebraska to join the company.”

—Dr. Carrick Detweiler, School of Computing

Looking Forward to the Future

If you stand outside of the current College of Engineering complex, you’ll see a sleek glass and steel building rising nearby, nearly completed. This is Kiewit Hall, funded with a $25 million naming gift from Kiewit Corporation and the support of other generous individuals, corporations and foundations. When it opens for classes in Spring 2024, Kiewit Hall will be one of the nation's premier engineering education facilities. It will also help to support Pérez's growth goals.

“Reputation and rankings matter in the engineering world. We want more companies to look to Nebraska and to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Engineering as one of their top choices for their future workforce,” Pérez said.

“We want to be such a source of talent that companies start to locate all over Nebraska to access our students and faculty.”

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