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Nurturing Future U.S. Engineers

Part 1 of a two-part series

By Micky Baca

Ya Lin Zhu
Ya Lin Zhu, EMC software engineer, helps Forest Grove Middle School students in Worcester, Mass., with an engineering exercise.

EMC, Raytheon confront a national dilemma

If the United States doesn't step up its efforts to get more people, especially women and underrepresented minorities, to pursue careers in engineering, the nation could wake up 20 years from now to find that it has outsourced the entire IT industry overseas. That's the warning from Howard Elias, president of EMC Global Services.

Elias is speaking out about what he calls the "new American crisis" in hopes of jarring parents, educators, community leaders, and fellow business leaders into addressing the lackluster number of engineering graduates in the U.S., particularly among African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos (termed underrepresented minorities).

According to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), the number of engineering graduates in the U.S. is at its lowest level in 20 years. The council also notes that, while underrepresented minorities make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, they make up only 12 percent of graduates with a B.S. degree in engineering.

A key barrier for this group, says Dr. Irving McPhail, NACME COO and executive vice president, is the lack of advanced math and science classes and qualified teachers in schools serving low-income and minority neighborhoods. Only a small percentage of underrepresented minority students graduate from high schools with the requisite preparation in science and mathematics to qualify for admission to study engineering or technology at the college level. Those who do pursue such college degrees often face difficulty in funding their tuition.

Add to those factors a general trend among U.S. college students to steer away from engineering and science careers and, Elias and other industry leaders warn, the future of U.S. economic competitiveness is at stake.

Elias, a NACME board member, is urging anyone who will listen to take steps to foster young peoples' interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (dubbed STEM). He is joined by a growing number of industry executives, including fellow NACME Board Member Mark E. Russell, VP of Engineering, Technology, and Mission Assurance at major defense contractor Raytheon Company.

"The edge of the cliff is coming; we just don't recognize it," Elias says. "For America to remain a leading economy in the future, we must face this issue now."

Russell says that having more women and underrepresented minorities in engineering can only benefit the profession. "Fostering the most inclusive pool of people, thinking, and background is the way to nurture creative ideas and ends up making all of us better at what we do," he says.

A two-pronged problem

The shortage of U.S. engineering graduates is a two-pronged problem, Elias and McPhail point out. Underrepresented minorities don't get the encouragement, the qualified teachers, and the insights into the importance of STEM to inspire them to pursue engineering careers. But the problem is exacerbated by a more widespread challenge: STEM and engineering careers suffer from an image problem among young people today.

Somehow, Elias says, we've lost the allure of science and technology that the space program generated for kids back in the 1960s, when he was growing up. What's more, he adds, all those engineers who were inspired by the space program are about to retire, adding to the dearth of American engineers.

"In some places, being a good student in math and science is not considered cool," Russell adds. "You could have a really smart student, doing well in his or her early classes, but somewhere around middle school, interest seems to wane. There are many theories as to why this is, some relating to role models, the type of education curriculum, stereotypes, and peer pressure."

The lack of interest in engineering is especially frustrating, McPhail and Elias note, because technology has never been more ingrained in our day-to-day existence. "There is such a high number of technical artifacts in the lives of our young peopleMP3 players, cellphones, laptopsthat you would think would guarantee their interest in technology," McPhail says. "We have to share responsibility for not conveying the excitement and the rewards that can be found in science and technical careers."

The IT industry needs to do a better job of talking about "cool careers" in technology to reach a culture predisposed toward things like voting for the next "American Idol," Elias says.

McPhail cites a recent report by the National Academy of Engineering singling out four major themes that those promoting engineering need to stress: engineering makes a world of difference; engineers are creative problem solvers; engineers help shape our future; and engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety.

Collaborating to change the conversation

Elias says he decided to join the NACME board a little more than a year ago because he felt the organization had taken on an important role in tackling the impending U.S. engineer shortage. NACME, he says, has evolved over the past several years from focusing mainly on scholarships to becoming a force for cultural and educational change regarding STEM.

In turn, McPhail says, companies like EMC and Raytheon have a vital role to play in addressing the need for more minorities in engineering. He says he has not seen a groundswell of corporate support for NACME's efforts, so these two leading Massachusetts employers are setting an example for others to follow.

"By their presence on our NACME board, they are sending a message," McPhail says. "We certainly appreciate the efforts of EMC and Raytheon to get this important work done with us. No one entity can do this work alone. It's the power of partnership and the power of collaboration."

NACME's strategy is to provide a continuum of programs that promote engineering from elementary school and middle school, to high school, through higher education, and into the workplace, McPhail says. Both EMC and Raytheon provide resources and volunteers to area schools and offer internships and employment opportunities to underrepresented minorities.

NACME is counting on corporate support to help fund a pre-engineering effort to build student awareness of engineering, McPhail says. Among its efforts is the launch of 110 Academies of Engineeringsmaller learning communities within high schoolsby 2012 to prepare students for college.

Individually, McPhail concludes, corporations should partner with schools spanning K-12, broaden their college recruitment efforts to include facilities that serve underrepresented minorities, make diversity a part of their company values, recognize the demographic changes in the U.S. population, and develop a workforce that reflects those changes.

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