SME Speaks: Filling Workforce Skill Gaps
The public debate about the loss of manufacturing jobs in North America might lead you to believe that there aren't good jobs out there for highly skilled engineers. That's just not true. In fact, what I've experienced is that it's become increasingly difficult to find qualified candidates to fill existing engineering jobs.
My employer, DaimlerChrysler, is not the only one to experience this problem. In a recent, large-scale survey of US manufacturing companies, 80% of respondents said they have had serious problems finding qualified candidates for the highly technical world of modern manufacturing. This is no surprise when you consider that enrollments in US college and university engineering programs have declined steadily over the last two decades. We've simply got to start engaging and educating our students in engineering before other careers capture them.
There are a lot of reasons why there aren't enough qualified students entering the engineering field. First, our K-12 math and science programs aren't providing students with a strong enough knowledge base to succeed in college. You get what you measure, and in the school system, there's not enough emphasis on providing students with a strong base in math and science. Again, that's not just my opinion. A recent report from the US Department of Education shows that American students rank 27th in the world in mathematics problem-solving, and that one-third of all undergraduate college students must take remedial coursework in math and science, which they should have mastered before graduating high school.
The most critical time to entice young people into pursuing engineering careers isn't when they're selecting majors in college. That's way too late. It's when they are in grade school, middle school, and high school—when they are first thinking about their options—that we have to entice them.
One reason students at those levels aren't getting interested in these careers is that a lot of teachers don't go that extra mile to make math and science real. Students doing math may have a hard time seeing how geometry, algebra or calculus affect their daily lives. They can make that kind of connection much more easily with their other classes. It's easier for them to envision a career path if they do well in English, Social Studies or Physical Education, for instance. In fact, the most vivid connections they make are probably in the sports field: The most popular students are often those who excel in real after-school life on the basketball court or baseball field. That's their world.
I have two daughters, ages 10 and 12, and I can say that it has not been easy to get them to consider engineering and science as career options. The social pressure girls face today, particularly in middle school, is tough. There's a huge need to fit in and not be different. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that we're dumbingdown our girls, math and science are often not the coolest disciplines for them to show enthusiasm about.
I'm a mechanical engineer and my husband is an electrical engineer, so we work together at home to get our daughters to understand how manufacturing and engineering affect our lives every day. We understand those connections, because we live them in our work lives and we're passionate about them, but a lot of parents can't make that connection for their children. Educators, and those of us involved in organizations like the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and its Education Foundation, have to help them.
Helping engage students in manufacturing engineering is one of the main reasons I joined the SME Education Foundation's Board of Directors in 2004.
Since it was formed in 1980, the Foundation has raised and directed more than $1.3 million in corporate and individual funding to programs that inform students about careers in manufacturing, and let them work on projects in a mentored environment. For instance, more than 4000 middle school and high school students have attended Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer (STEPS) camps, the Foundation's signature youth program. The basic STEPS program is a week-long summer camp held on the campuses of colleges and universities, where students learn engineering concepts such as physics, pneumatics, aerodynamics, Web design, chemistry, fabrication, assembly, and electronics. Student teams gain hands-on experience by building their own products, like robots, rockets, and small vehicles.
A recent study of former STEPS students demonstrated that the program is effective in getting students interested in careers in math, engineering, science, and technology. The study found that a STEPS graduate is 7.7 times more likely to enroll in college-level programs in engineering and technology than other students. This year, I sent my 12-year-old daughter, Svetlana, to the STEPS camp at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, the university that hosted the first STEPS camp in 1997 and has held camps each year since. Svetlana learned why her father and I are so passionate about what we do; the experience was priceless.
I'm excited for her. Most of us in engineering leadership today, particularly the women, didn't get into the field because it was part of a master plan. For me, at least, it was a happy accident. When I was my daughter's age, students weren't counseled to get into math and science. I was good at those things, so my teachers and counselors suggested I become a teacher. I basically fell into engineering when I was planning for college, and was able to get into a co-op program where I could be working to pay for my education and going to school at the same time. It was convenient, and there weren't any co-op programs for medicine, in which I was also interested.
I'm glad times have changed, but more still needs to be done. The only answer is for individuals, educational institutions, businesses, and societies like SME to band together. We share a passion, and we owe it to our children.
Sandra Bouckley serves as plant manager, Pilot Process Verification Center, Conner Avenue Assembly Plant (which builds the Viper) and the Sterling Heights Vehicle Test Center, for DaimlerChrysler. She has served on the board of directors of the SME Education Foundation for two years. Last year, Bouckley was named by Automotive News as one of the 100 leading women in the North American Auto Industry.
Preparing Students for Manufacturing Careers
The SME Education Foundation works with business, industry, and academia to help new engineers improve their knowledge and skill levels so they are better equipped to meet the complex needs of today's manufacturing engineering employers.
In addition to funding individual scholarships and youth programs that inspire young students to pursue math, science, and engineering careers, the Education Foundation provides grants to colleges and universities to help them improve or enhance their manufacturing engineering education. Its grant funding is earmarked for manufacturing education programs that help close specific competency gaps identified through Foundation-funded studies, and outlined in its resulting Manufacturing Education Plan. Collaboration with local businesses, industry, and government is a key component of those programs that have received MEP grant funding.
Since 1998, the SME Education Foundation has provided $15.5 million in grants to colleges and universities. Last year alone, the Foundation awarded $635,000 in funding to the following three universities:
- Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN
- Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
- Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA
Purdue University received a grant of $274,000 to enhance its curriculum for Product Lifecycle Management for Engineering and Engineering Technology Student and Industrial Practitioners. Manufacturing concepts and knowledge are being worked into an interdisciplinary curriculum through the use of product lifecycle management (PLM) principles. The project is addressing competency gaps in product/process design, manufacturing systems, problem-solving, teamwork, business knowledge, project management, oral communications, and international prospective.
The objectives of the project are to:
- Validate the competencies required of engineering and manufacturing technologists for the support and application of PLM processes and tools through close collaboration with industry.
- Engage six different departments and five colleges in the course and curriculum development.
- Develop 238 PLM-focused curriculum modules and integrate them into the existing degree program.
- Create new student/industry internship experiences.
- Create international collaboration for faculty and students in PLM.
- Support faculty externships for the infusion of new PLM concepts into the curriculum.
- Participate in existing summer outreach programs for students in grades 6 through 12, and incorporate PLM-related projects into the curriculum.
- Disseminate PLM curriculum modules for use at other technical institutions.
Wayne State University received a grant of $140,000 for its Production Management Leadership Program. The university is using the funding to update its Industrial Engineering curriculum within its College of Engineering to create a new path for career opportunity and advancement through the operations side of manufacturing. The curriculum reform is focused on preparing engineers with the technical and professional skills needed to become leaders in manufacturing organizations.
Areas of emphasis include project management, manufacturing process control, quality, and manufacturing systems. The program addresses competency gaps that include written and oral communication, product/process design, specific manufacturing processes, problem-solving, teamwork, and interpersonal skills.
Eastern Washington University received $221,000 to enhance its manufacturing technology curriculum. It is focused on creating a world-class manufacturing technology program that supports the development of technically competent and certified manufacturing technologists.
At the completion of the project, the university will have significantly expanded and revised its BS and manufacturing-major program by adding more practical, industry-relevant components to most of the classes within the major. The project will incorporate service learning, using a teaching model. As a result, students will gain experience in applying concepts and theory to real-life problems, undertaking the entire product design-manufacture-delivery process, solving problems in a multidisciplinary team, and communicating effectively with others from diverse backgrounds.
Foundation Funds Research Projects
In addition to funding projects designed to transform engineering education on a large scale through its MEP grants program, the SME Education Foundation also funds several university research projects each year.
The following universities most recently received grants through the SME Education Foundation's Research Initiative Program:
- Arizona State University received $15,000 for a research project titled Electrorheological Manufacturing of Composite Materials.
- Brigham Young University received $15,000 for a research project titled Formability of Friction Stir-Welded High-Strength Steel Sheet.
- California Polytechnic State University at San Louis Obispo received $14,994 for a research project titled Effects of Component Finish and Printed Circuit Board Surface Finish on Lead-Free Solder Joint Quality.
- Clemson University received $15,000 to fund a research project titled Wireless Sensor Networks Enabled Manufacturing Process Monitoring—an E-Manufacturing Research Prospective.
- University of Wisconsin-Madison received $15,000 for a research project titled Micro-Scale Laser-Assisted Micro-End Milling.
To Connect Automotive, Aerospace
Known as the "world's third-largest economy," the American South is the nation's most active region for corporate investment and job generation. While the private and governmental groups in this region have different businesses and end users, there is much they can learn from one another to advance manufacturing knowledge. What they've lacked, however, is a venue for this to happen. To address this need, SME, together with the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association (AAMA) and the Alabama Aerospace Industries Association (AAIA), has established a brand new event, Collaborate 2006! Conference & Exhibits.
Collaborate 2006! will be held in Huntsville, Alabama, October 10–12, and is North America's only automotive, aerospace and defense collaborative event. It will address the shared people, process, and technology challenges of OEMs and their suppliers. In addition to attending cross-industry conference sessions, attendees will tour Siemens VDO Automotive Electronics & J.I.T. Services, and the Boeing Delta Launch Vehicle Factory. For Southern companies facing challenges in lean manufacturing, supply chain management, predictive maintenance, and product lifecycle management, there is much to be learned right in their own backyards. For info, visit www.sme.org/collaborate.
This article was first published in the August 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.