The ‘Coming STEM Crisis’ is already here

  • 29-May-2015 12:46 EDT
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Denso’s Douglas Patton (at podium) implored those in the audience “to get engaged” in STEM activities at a local school. Other participants on the STEM panel were (left to right) Ben Dollar of Deloitte Consulting LLP, Chris Ciuca of SAE International, Jeff Klei of Continental, and Van Walling of Walling Consulting Services LLC.

The title of a panel session at the recent SAE 2015 World Congress in Detroit was called “The Coming STEM Crisis,” but one of the participants noted that there’s nothing “coming” about it.

“It’s here, and it’s been here,” said Van Walling about the acute shortage of employees and students with a grounding in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Each of the panelists in some way quantified the “crisis,” but the focus for them was on solutions. In detailing the initiatives of a Wisconsin organization called STEM Forward, Walling said the source of the problem should not be viewed narrowly. “All too often it gets characterized as an education issue, and while surely education is a cornerstone of the STEM issue…it’s unfair and unrealistic to put this crisis on the backs of the educational community alone. It belongs to all of us.”

By “all of us,” the President of Walling Consulting Services LLC meant the pre-college education community, the post-secondary education community, and the professional community. He believes that addressing the issue should be the “equal responsibility” of those communities.

STEM Forward, a Wisconsin organization for which Walling took several years off from his professional civil engineering career to head, is addressing the STEM problem via several initiatives. One is a matchmaking program, called STEM 7, in which the group facilitates contact and discussion between specific schools and businesses in the Milwaukee area for partnering efforts. It also provides ongoing administrative support for the partnerships that emerge.

Walling noted that some employers view potential employees’ “real-world workplace skill” as more important than academic competencies because there is a “growing need for people to work together in teams effectively—very diverse teams, oft times in differing geographic locations.”

Other Walling takeaways: Developing a STEM-grounded workforce is “an economic development matter,” and the biggest component in how companies can advocate for enhanced STEM education in their local communities is volunteerism—although direct financial and in-kind assistance obviously are also very valuable.

Douglas Patton, Executive Vice President of Engineering and Chief Technical Officer, Denso International America, said it’s important for companies to offer hands-on experiences in manufacturing facilities as a way of getting kids excited about a potential career in the automotive industry. “You can talk to them, but showing them and letting them put their hands on things—that’s what excites them. Seeing is everything.”

Another advantage of inviting students into plants is to show them that the modern factory defies the stereotype of greasy-handed workers.

Inviting students into tech centers has a similar impact, said Patton. He recalled a conversation with a young woman that he served alongside on a recent industry panel. She told him she wanted to become an automotive engineer at least in part because of her positive experience at an earlier Denso tech center event.

Retaining technical staff can be as big a challenge as recruiting new staff, Patton said. A recently departed Denso software engineer told him he was leaving Denso, even though he liked the company. Why? Because he found his "dream job" in Silicon Valley. “How can I compete with that?” Patton asked rhetorically. “I don’t really have an answer for that, and that’s part of the problem. But we [the automotive industry as a whole] are working on exciting things.” It’s a matter of doing a better job communicating that excitement to current and future prospects, he said.

Patton offered several other interesting observations, noting that a recent study has found that 21% of parents encourage their daughters to be an actress, but only 10% encourage them to be an engineer. Another observation is that more universities need to offer an embedded software curriculum.

Much as Walling did, Patton implored the audience to volunteer in the classroom.

Jeff Klei, President, NAFTA Automotive Divisions, Continental, said his company is feeling the effects of the STEM crisis, with more than 950 STEM-related openings for its North American operations.

But the impact of the STEM crisis goes well beyond Continental. “The lack of qualified individuals who are able to work in key STEM-related fields will hinder our country’s global competitive advantage well into the future,” he said.

Klei cited a statistical gap that “can no longer be ignored”: from 2000 to 2007, the number of nonSTEM degrees awarded in the United States grew 50% faster than the number of STEM degrees while demand for employees with STEM degrees grew 50% faster than the number of degreed recipients.

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that STEM graduates typically target careers in nonautomotive fields.

“This presents a real challenge for our industry,” Klei said. “The perception that the automotive industry is static and antiquated needs to be changed. I would argue that this industry has never been more exciting.”

Ben Dollar, Principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP, echoed much of what Klei said. He noted that one of his company’s executive surveys underscores the idea that “talent-driven innovation is the number one driver of manufacturing competitiveness.” He also noted that the U.S. lags in developing STEM talent, ranking 36th in the world in mathematics proficiency, 24th in science, and 23rd in reading. “This is something that needs to be fixed,” said Dollar. “And it starts with the people in this room.”

Chris Ciuca, Director of Pre-Professional Education at SAE International, said it’s important that STEM education in schools be done in an integrated fashion. He recalled a conversation with a superintendent who told him he had STEM “covered” because some teachers instruct in math and others in science. But that color-by-numbers approach is insufficient, according to Ciuca.

“We want science teachers to be using literary concepts,” he said. “We want math teachers to be using scientific concepts and talking about arts and bringing all these things into the classroom…We need students to be put into an environment of scientific thinking that is all-inclusive.” And make sure that an integrated approach to learning is adopted very early on.

In this way, students will become better problem solvers, said Ciuca.

As the other speakers did, Ciuca emphasized the need for professional engineers to get into the classroom and mix it up with youngsters—to provide a positive role model for engineering. SAE International facilitates such classroom encounters via its renowned AWIM (A World in Motion) curricula that offers classroom instruction paired with hands-on experience in designing and building small “vehicles.” The students then pit their vehicles against those of other students in races and other types of contests.

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