UpFront: Making Engineers
By Brian J. Hogan
Once again, IMTS is on the horizon, which makes this a good time to give some thought to the future of US manufacturing, and the future of technology and science in the US.
Lately I've seen glimmers of recognition in the general press that this country doesn't seem to be producing enough native-born engineers and scientists. The suggested answer to this problem is to somehow push young people into studying the hard sciences and engineering, and also to bring more foreign citizens with technical degrees into the US.
Neither proposed solution explains why, in a country where technology is everywhere, fewer young people are choosing careers in technical fields.
When solving a problem, definition comes first, solution second. Perhaps the following observations can help us create such a definition.
First, most young people in the US don't work. Often the child labor laws and minimum wage laws make their employment quite impossible. Consequently, the question posed by adults to those young people: "What do you want to do when you grow up?" can't be answered. A kid who is able to work in the family business at least gains some insight to the way adults earn a living, and may be able to find out that he/she hates caring for livestock, changing spark plugs, or stocking shelves. But today, a typical 18-year-old pops out of high school, and is expected to either attend a university or jump into the world of work, about which that person knows nothing.
Second, taking a degree in science or engineering requires a good basic grasp of mathematics, and work habits that are not commonplace. Instruction in science and math is poor in most US high schools. Also, the rule at engineering college has always been 1 hr in class and 2 hr studying. Figure that a kid registers for, say, 17 lecture hours per week, and someone who has never had a job is facing a 51-hr work week. Is it surprising that US engineering colleges typically have a 60% dropout rate?
Third, most US companies are run by people with MBAs or backgrounds in finance, and they have a habit of looking at people with technical educations as programmable robots. When the robots get older, the tendency is to scrap and replace.To avoid that fate, many engineers strive to move into managerial positions. And they don't often urge their children to take a career path that leads through science and engineering. The shortage of US-born engineers is a problem created by a societal failure to introduce young people to the world of work, an educational failure in grade schools and high schools, and managers who have not provided a career path for technically educated people. These shortcomings aren't terribly complex. Surely they can be set right?
This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.