Writing Their Own Check
When students at his university’s engineering college are ready to line up full-time work, Singer says many of them line up at job fairs eagerly awaiting their turn to get face time with well-known tech companies. But a group of students notably absent are the naval architecture majors.
“There’ll be lines of students waiting for Tesla or Facebook, and they’re all waiting in their little suits,” Singer recalls. “Our students are in such high demand that they don’t [go]. The companies come to us.”
During lean times, Singer says naval architecture students at the University of Michigan graduate with two or three job offers. That figure might be five to 10 job offers when companies are aggressively hiring.
In his experience, graduates can command starting salaries between $75,000 to $85,000 if they are hired by the military defense contractors, and that range increases for those who have a master’s degree or Ph.D. Singer estimates they could start between $75,000 to $100,000 in the oil and gas industry, where the salaries vary more widely because so too do the sizes of the hiring companies and the price of oil.
Lt. Cmdr. Dan Brahan, department head for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s naval architecture and marine engineering program, says that students who go the military route won’t make as much money right after graduation as their peers who work in the private sector. But by his estimate, graduates choose to stay in the Coast Guard for about 10 years on average — five years beyond their required post-graduation commitment — and then tend to stay in the industry’s private sector.
“A lot of times, they are working for either other government entities, or they might even get a job as a Coast Guard civilian,” Brahan says. “We’re finding that oftentimes, even though they’re not staying in the Coast Guard — which is what we are hoping with our investment — it’s an indirect investment, ’cause we have somebody still in the industry.”
Trying to Break Free of ‘Niche’ Status
It all begs the question: Why is a field of study that faculty say is challenging, stimulating and highly profitable attracting so few students?
Globally, it’s not a niche field, Singer says, adding that it’s a popular career path in countries like the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark.
He points out that a quick internet search for naval architecture and marine engineering programs yields a list of 100 schools in China. A similar search for the U.S. pulls up roughly a dozen programs.
The issue can be traced back to the ’80s, Singer says, when President Ronald Reagan ended government subsidies for the construction of ships that flew under the U.S. flag. Universities also follow trends when it comes to supporting programs that capture students’ interests, he adds, which means that naval architecture fell out of fashion over time and the number of faculty shrank.
“We forget that something that is old is not antiquated,” Singer says. “So it’s a niche industry, which it shouldn’t be given the dominance we have as a navy, the opportunities we have from high-tech, offshore, green [energy], and then also from an oil perspective. But it is unfortunately niche, because it’s a limited number of universities.”
Brahan likewise notes that — unlike other engineering fields — naval architecture graduates are going to find jobs are centered along the coasts.
Brahan says that he, Garcia and their colleagues at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy currently have a crop of 23 seniors in the naval architecture and marine engineering program. From 2013 to 2020, he says the school averaged about 19 graduates per year. The class of 2025 is the largest they’ve had, Brahan adds, with 35 students.
Lack of visibility of the profession is one reason why few students study it, Garcia says.
“You need enough people around you to already know about it,” Garcia says. “Because how do most of us learn about engineering if our parents weren’t engineers?”
Maybe by having a background in boating. Both Garcia and Singer noted that a lot of people who enter the field grew up sailing or in families that owned boats.
“They love sailing and also competing, and while they’re here they want to design their own boat,” Garcia explains about many of her students. “I would say at least a quarter of our students just want to be able to design their own small craft to be able to sail in the ocean, so that’s a huge motivation.”
Brahan says the staff in his department are doing their best to dismantle the thinking that naval architecture is the most difficult program at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, though he sees how students might get that impression given the amount of time naval architecture majors spend hitting the books. Rather, he wants students to know that it’s a field where professors are supportive and where graduates can find stable, challenging work.
That’s because naval architecture — which Garcia calls the engineering world’s “best-kept secret” — touches industries spanning from global shipping to environmental preservation.
“When a ship runs aground, we need an engineer to go out there and figure out how we’re gonna get it off safely without causing any more damage to the marine environment,” Brahan says. “It includes applications in space. We’ve got SpaceX landing rocket boosters on an autonomous barge, so there’s nobody on there. We need smart engineers to design it but also regulate it and also make sure that it’s safe in a variety of fields.”