Several weeks ago, Dana Humphrey, dean of the University of Maine’s College of Engineering, asked me to think about this question: “Why is the study of engineering important to the future of the Maine economy?”

In reflecting on this request, two answers emerged. The first is immediate, quite obvious and very straightforward. The second answer is far more important, in many ways counterintuitive and speaks to a much longer-term problem that is not at all obvious.

The first answer is that there are plenty of high-paying jobs available for trained engineers, and Maine’s economy needs people to fill them. According to the 2015 occupational survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average annual wage for engineers in Maine was $72,300. This figure was two-thirds higher than the average wage for all occupations in Maine of $43,260.

In addition, the Maine Department of Labor forecasts that Maine will see an average of 249 job openings in engineering each year through 2024. Of these projected employment opportunities, 231 will come from the need to replace engineers likely to retire.

In short, the study of engineering is important to the Maine economy because if we don’t educate young women and men in the skills of engineering, our economy will continue to stagnate, perhaps even to disintegrate before us, like the bridges over the Piscataqua, as the inability to fill critical positions leads more businesses to close or relocate.

As critical and obvious as is this answer to Dean Humphrey’s question, I believe it is less important than a second answer, one that is not directed at filling existing jobs (however critical they may be) but at preparing a workforce to imagine and create jobs that do not even exist today.

According to the biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson, the human species now stands at the threshold of “volitional evolution,” the “creation of artificial organisms, gene substitution and surgically precise modification of the genome.”

Wilson argues that these possibilities put at risk global biodiversity, including continuation of the human species. Our survival, he asserts, requires “intelligent self-understanding, based upon a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies.”

And I believe that the greatest importance of engineering for the future of the Maine economy lies in facing this challenge. Harkening back to the origins of the word “engineer” – the Latin “ingeniator,” defined as “one who makes, produces, generates, begets; one who possesses ingenuity” – it is clear that Maine, indeed the planet, needs people who meet this definition.

At base, an engineer is someone who embraces rather than retreats from complexity. He or she is someone who combines the highest respect for the harsh, intractable laws of nature (the reality of the “not me”) with a deepest commitment to finding solutions to human problems.

There is in economics today a revival of a pessimism not seen since the days of the populist fear mongers of the early 20th century.

“What will we do,” they cried, “with these millions of people streaming out of rural areas where 90 percent of the manual labor once needed to feed our nation is no longer necessary?” “Do not crucify mankind,” longtime populist leader William Jennings Bryan cried in campaign after campaign, “upon a cross of gold.”

Today, the proponents of “secular stagnation” declare a similar pessimism. They claim that this time, it really is different, that all the revolutionary inventions have been made, that digital communication and the “gig economy” will eliminate all but the most creative jobs, reducing the bulk of the population to desperately scrabbling for TaskRabbit, Uber driver and other temporary fee-for-service gigs that arise as they will on digital search boards.

My own view is that liberally trained engineers – well versed both in the technical realities that have destroyed so many jobs over the past generation and in the rich possibilities of human cultural creativity that has so successfully evolved over the past hundred thousand years – will have the independence of thought to find ways to address even as massive a challenge as both Edward Wilson and the proponents of “secular stagnation” present.

And that is why engineers are so important to the future of the Maine economy.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

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