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Workforce Engineering—How to Solve the Skills Gap

Andrew Honeycutt, PhD
By Andrew Honeycutt, PhD Oak Ridge National Laboratory, SME Member Since 2019

Many articles have been written about how to solve the skills gap and the diminishing manufacturing workforce, which I believe are very closely related, so I will offer my thoughts on the subject as well.

Engineering fields have been successful at developing and implementing technologies over the past few centuries, but they have been wildly unsuccessful at changing or engineering human nature or social structures. Engineers have not been able to prevent genocidal desires throughout history, but they have developed engineering solutions to eradicate by force those who do desire genocide. Engineers have not been able to develop technologies to settle religious and geopolitical turbulence, but they have been extremely successful at developing defensive technologies, weapons technologies and surveillance technologies for areas that suffer from this turmoil. Workforce engineering is not a realistic solution to the skills gap because human nature and desires cannot be engineered.

The best way to solve the skills gap is to ignite the already existing and yet dormant fuel of curiosity inside of young minds. Carl Sagan did not research and contribute to our knowledge of the cosmos because previous human generations were able to engineer astronomical excitement into him. Brian Josephson did not win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973 because manufacturing engineers in the 1960s engineered into him a human desire for stable voltage artifacts. I would venture to say that most manufacturing workers today are not employed in manufacturing because of an engineered social program; it is more likely that their fuel was ignited at an early age.

STEM fields require many skills that are difficult to learn, and without the proper motivation, many potential candidates will be lost to other easier paths.

My K-12 education was insufficient to prepare me for my undergraduate mechanical engineering courses, but because a few of my teachers worked diligently to encourage my curiosity for the natural world, I worked hard to gain the necessary skills to participate in the STEM world.

 SME cannot change the massive and dysfunctional national memorization (aka educational) system, and I do not blame my K-12 teachers because they were under their own set of difficult boundary conditions. I will, however, praise the handful of educators who fostered my desire for real understanding. Mr. Gary Piggott increased my desire to find engineering solutions by exposing me to Newtonian physics experiments, and Mrs. Robin Filter tapped into my inquisitive nature by applying calculus to pinewood derby races, ice-cream making and trebuchet catapults. The most effective solution to the skills gap would be an extreme and fundamental change to our entire educational system; however, SME nor frustrated teachers are able to cure this cancer immediately. In the meantime, therefore, we must rely on the powerful and transformational fuel source of curiosity that already exists in young minds to carry them through the difficult journey of rectifying their K-12 education to prepare them for STEM fields.

Much evidence suggests that females are not encouraged and possibly discouraged to enter STEM fields. There is a clear link between underfunded schools that service under-represented communities and those communities’ presence in STEM fields.

I wish that we could “solve” the diminishing manufacturing workforce by eliminating socially enforced gender roles and stereotypes, increasing educational funding and training for underserved and under-represented communities, and fundamentally altering our national and local educational models. However, SME does not have the ability to alter these massive and complicated social problems. So, what can we do? We can find ways to light that existing yet dormant fuel inside of young minds. French aviator and author Antoine de St. Exupery wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

As SME members, we can identify local middle and high schools to visit and establish connections. We can work with those local schools to find ways to inspire young minds by working with teachers to develop exciting experiments that coincide with required curriculum. We can identify local museums, manufacturing plants or universities that can serve as field trip destinations. We can meet with the academic counselors of high schools, and make sure that they know about the different manufacturing colleges and trade schools that exist.

If our product (manufacturing technologies) is truly something of value, we do not need to develop tricks to get young minds interested, we only need to expose them to it. Those who are inspired will use the tools we can provide to them. Neal deGrasse Tyson recounts his common experience with concerned parents; “Parents come up to me, “How do I get my kids interested in science?” They’re already interested in science. Just stop beating it out of them.” Let’s begin to repopulate the diminishing manufacturing workforce by exploiting the volatile and explosive nature of the fuel or curiosity that already exists in young minds!

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