Bridging the Gap: Making Education Work for Industry

At the Real World Design Challenge in Washington DC last month high-school teams from around the United States presented their eco-friendly aircraft and land transport designs to an impressive lineup of officials from industry, education and government.

Projected on the podium backdrop was a personal letter from President Obama. It read:

“America has always been a nation of discoverers, tinkerers and innovators. Our ability to carry this forward will depend on how well we prepare our next generation of doers and makers to address the problems of the 21st century.”

Over the past 10 years, STEM-related jobs have grown three times faster than non-STEM jobs, and continued growth is projected for the coming decade. On average, STEM workers earn 26 percent more and are less likely to experience joblessness.

Yet despite this, only a third of bachelor’s degrees in the United States are in a STEM field—compared with 53 percent in China and 63 percent in Japan—leaving a huge deficit in STEM workers and a gaping hole in the U.S. economy.

As the baby boomers get ready to exit the workforce, industry has a big stake in educating the next generation.

“By 2013, more than half of the nation’s transport workers will be ready to retire,” says Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. We have new emissions regulations which we must comply with by 2017. There’s tremendous opportunity in the future, but we have to focus on STEM.”

“The number of engineers available in 15 to 20 years when senior engineers have retired is insufficient to meet demand and we have to solve that problem,” says Scott Parks, director of navy and regional missile defense systems at Boeing, and a judge at the Real World Design Challenge.

“This challenge is of obvious interest to Boeing, and we’ve always had a strong commitment to STEM,” Parks says. “Boeing is highly focused on educating students because in a few years time there’s going to be a 20 to 30 percent shortfall in aerospace engineers. In the global market, to compete with China and Brazil, we need a strong aerospace pipeline.”

Parks believes that industry involvement in education is vital to getting the younger generation and their families interested in STEM.

“This is not something that can be solved with a federal mandate – it’s a conversation you have around the dinner table with your kids – it’s getting them excited about math and science again,” Parks says.

“Programs which bring industry and educators together are essential,” says Mark Fraser, director of research and technology at EADS North America. “Recent surveys show that 80 percent of high school kids are not interested in engineering and 40 percent don’t even know what engineering is. Only 20 percent of parents in the U.S. say they would support their kids going into engineering. We need to change society’s perception.”

If STEM related industries can reach just a portion of high school students, through mentoring or sponsorship, then those kids will go off and tell their peers and families about what they have learned, and that will have a positive impact, Fraser believes.

“John Deere really values programs like these,” says Pat Barnes, program director for global STEM at John Deere. “Forty percent of our employees work in a STEM role and we are headed for a huge shortage. We need to take action now.”

One-hundred percent of students who participate in the Real World Design Challenge go on to university, and 90 percent of them go into engineering fields. But it’s not all about four-year degrees.

“There’s a gap in technical training too,” says Deborah McLellan, engineering manager at Standard Motor Products. A two-year technical degree is just as important because we’re starting to see a shortage of skilled workers in areas like advanced manufacturing.”

It’s getting harder to fill jobs in manufacturing and test labs which require mid-level skills, says McLellan.

Is our education system out of touch with industry? How can industry better serve educators and vice-versa?

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3 thoughts on “Bridging the Gap: Making Education Work for Industry”

  1. I found the statistic of 40% of high school kids not knowing what engineering is, and only 20% of parents saying they would support their kids going into engineering quite alarming. As Obama says – we need to change our society’s perception. I am thankful and so proud of my 8 year old nephew / engineer in training. He loves it all! and there is nothing more impressive than watching him construct a motoroized toy crane all on his own. Imagine what he will be capable of 10 years from now. Wow!

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