Friday, April 21, 2006

America Faces Critical Shortage of Engineers

There was an amazing editorial in the Wall Street Journal on April 19, 2006 from the head of Lockheed Martin, Robert J. Stevens. Unfortunately, you have to pay for the Wall Street Journal so I can't provide a useful link.

In this editorial, titled Social Engineering - Commentary, Mr. Stevens draws attention to the stagnation of engineering majors in this country, while other countries like China are greatly increasing their graduation rates in high-tech fields:

Americans are focused on China's rise and the implications for U.S. preeminence -- especially in technology. The revving of China's science and engineering engine is too loud to ignore: 50% of its undergraduates receive degrees in natural science or engineering, compared to 15% in the U.S. Between 1999 and 2003, China doubled production of engineering grads; U.S. numbers are stagnant. Meanwhile, China's global high-tech exports approached $220 billion in 2005 -- more than 100 times 1989 levels.

Bob notes that the U.S. technology workforce is aging, and our schools aren't producing enough talent to replace those retiring and grow the supply of workers to meet new needs. He gives some interesting statistics for his company:

For Lockheed Martin, where almost half of our 135,000 employees are scientists and engineers, questions of technological competitiveness go to the heart of our ability to innovate and thrive. Given the security constraints surrounding our work, outsourcing and offshoring aren't feasible options for companies in our sector. For the aerospace and defense industry, the front lines of the brainpower battle aren't in China, they're here at home.

One in every three of Lockheed's employees is over 50. To sustain our talent base, we're hiring 14,000 people a year. In two years, we're going to need 29,000 new hires; in three years, 44,000. If this trend continues, over the next decade we will need 142,000. We're not alone; industry-wide, some 19% of employees are eligible for retirement. Yet Department of Education data suggests U.S. colleges and universities are only producing about 62,000 engineering BAs a year -- fewer than the visual and performing arts graduates -- and that figure hasn't grown in a decade.

In other words, one company, Lockheed Martin, is looking to hire almost 22% of the supply of new graduates. I would have guessed the fear would have been that 1/3 of the workforce was going to be drawing retirement in the next 15 years, but that problem apparently pales next to the difficulty in finding enough skilled laborers who meet the security needs of a defense contractor.

Mr. Stevens warns that if we don't solve the problem of job training for our technology sector, it will hurt every aspect of our country and way of life:

The looming tech talent shortfall will have an impact far beyond any single firm or sector. Science and engineering aren't just crucial for national security; they're critical for economic growth. High-tech industries drive development, boosting productivity and generating good jobs. If the U.S. intends to remain the world's technological leader, we have to act today, inspiring more young people to thrive in advanced-tech careers. It's achievable, as long as government, the private sector, schools and communities work together.

He has his solutions. First off, one I disagree with:

The classroom is the place to begin. A major study ranked us 24 out of 29 countries in terms of 15-year-olds' ability to apply math skills. The Bush administration's pledge to improve math and science education, including 70,000 newly trained high-school teachers, is encouraging. But in order to attract the best teachers, we should pay them what they're worth. Between 1993-94 and 2003-04, 15 states saw declines in teacher salaries when adjusted for inflation.

I don't believe our problem with math skills is a lack of teachers capable of imparting the knowledge. In fact, given technological advances, we should be looking a new way of educating, where a few teachers of proven ability to connect and explain the material are piped into schools throughout the land in short lectures, with local teachers who we would pay less but hire more of, would be available for small-group counselling and work-group leadership. We will never find one million "best" teachers -- we shouldn't try. I note that we often use volunteers to work with students, and those volunteers, largely untrained, seem to do a better job than the trained teachers, because the important thing is the interaction and directly applied lessons, rather than the skill of the teacher.

In any case, with the existing NEA and local unions, increasing pay won't replace a SINGLE teacher -- the unions SAY they need better pay to attract qualified teachers, but they don't ever suggest the existing teachers are unqualified and should be fired when we increase the pay. Instead, the increased pay is to go to existing teachers. Are they suggesting the teachers simply aren't doing a good job because they are holding out for higher pay? I don't think so.

Bob Stevens has other ideas that work well and should be expanded:

Industry also has an important role to play. At Lockheed Martin, we fund and participate in programs like Mathcounts, Space Day and National Engineers Week, when our employees go into classrooms and community centers with hands-on activities to kindle an interest in engineering. Our goal is to mentor kids, helping them see beyond the stereotype of the nerd in the lab and start thinking of math and science as compelling, rewarding, even fun.
There are other avenues worthy of exploration: visa extensions for international students who earn advanced math and science degrees from U.S. institutions and want to work here; or student loan forgiveness for math and science graduates who commit to work in national security fields. But just as important as revitalizing policy is reshaping attitudes.

One statistic he provided surprised me, as he said it would:

Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that more S&P 500 CEOs got degrees in engineering than any other field.

As a person with 25 years of experience in the technology field, I was surprised to find so few engineers were graduated each year. I would have thought it was much higher-- I thought I remembered over 1000 from my Virginia Tech graduating class back in 1981.

If we can't graduate our own hi-tech workforce, we will need to increasingly rely on foreign-worker visa programs to fill the gap, if we want to keep the companies within our own borders.

That means getting control of our borders, stopping illegal immigration, so we can put some sanity into the process of picking who should work here, and who shouldn't. Democrats and a few republicans argue we need lettuce-pickers, but it looks like we need some good Java programmers as well.


NOVA Scout said...

quick track citizenship for qualified immigrant engineers/scientists/programmers etc would be a good start.

Charles said...

I don't like granting citizenship too quickly, because I truly want proof that citizens are dedicated to the survival of our nation, and not just looking for a good job.

And it would make me nervous is we were quick-tracking foreigners for jobs in the defense industry.

But for non-secure positions, such a program, or maybe a better legal guest worker program, would be a short-term fix.