Industry Looks to High Schools for Next-Generation Engineers

As she begins to describe her work, Paige Grody transforms from serious and solemn to wildly enthusiastic. She’s learned about programming in her internship at a major software corporation, and about the complicated language used by engineers.

Only one thing bothers her: It’s almost time to go back to high school. Grody is part of a small but growing number of high-school students being hired by engineering companies as interns in the hope they’ll be persuaded to go into engineering fields.

Even at her top-rated high school in suburban Boston, where Grody is entering her senior year, engineering is considered “nerdy,” she says. “It’s the nerd factor. A lot of people see engineers as those videogame people. Plus, it’s just difficult to do.”

Internships like hers, she says, at PTC, “make people interested in engineering. It brings you in contact with other people who work in engineering and are excited about it.”

About 4 percent of American high-school students hold internships, according to the US Department of Labor’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, though personnel executives say the number is growing.

Engineering companies in particular are recognizing that high school is the last, best time to steer young prospects into engineering, a field in which the number of US-born prospects is declining.

“College students have already committed [to a major]”, says Edwin Koc, Director of Strategic Research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. “And while there are kids who go into engineering and may switch out, there are very few that go in as an accounting or history major and then switch into engineering, which has to do with the structure of the curriculum and the number of required courses engineering majors have to take.”

High-school students, on the other hand, have not declared a college major. So some companies, says Koc, “are taking high-school kids, either through school programs or even subsidizing them, to go into engineering. That’s almost what you have to do.”

NASA takes high-school interns. So does the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—it calls them “pre-collegiate scholars.” There’s even a science and engineering apprenticeship program at the US Department of Defense, which places high-school students in Army research labs. An organization called ACE mentors high-school students to go into architecture, construction management, and engineering by putting them on mock design teams.

Participants in the ACE program graduate from high school and go to college at higher rates than classmates who don’t. Eighty-six percent say they went into engineering as a result, and female participants enter college engineering programs at double the national rate.

“Having this under my belt makes me feel that now I can go and learn whatever I want to learn,” says Grody, who plans to become a biomedical engineer. “I want to do something fantastic and awesome.”

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