An engineering SOS

I am only 46 years old. But the other day, in a lively discussion about the value of work experience, I was informed I am part of the "aging workforce." Aging? I have at least 20 more solid, productive work years left in me.

The truth remains, the workforce is aging. And industry isn't replacing the knowledge base that retires each year with new talent. Part of the problem is the reluctance of young people today to pursue manufacturing careers, whether as skilled tradesmen or as engineers. Even those graduating with engineering degrees today are not as prepared for the manufacturing arena as they could be.

Dr. Bruce Kramer, director of the Division of Engineering Education and Centers for the National Science Foundation (NSF), addressed this critical shortage of engineering talent and experience at the Managing Innovative Manufacturing Conference held recently.

According to the NSF/SRS Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System, there are 1.6 million people employed as engineers in the U.S. Another 1 million degreed engineers work in other fields.

Ninety-eight percent of those original engineering majors who changed career paths said the reason for the switch from engineering was poor teaching. This sentiment is echoed in industry. According to Dr. Kramer, industry is saying that new engineering grads need at least two years of industry experience to become a net contributor. What else has he heard from industry? "Communication skills are among the most important skills for engineers," he said, and "University graduates must learn how to work in teams."

And probably most important, "We expect students to learn the fundamentals at universities. This provides the foundation we need to build real engineering skills."

This is easier said than done. Dr. Kramer said there is not enough time for students to learn the fundamentals well, as currently taught. He says software and distance learning tools can be "dangerous" if used by students without enough fundamental knowledge. Software tools eliminate most mechanical steps in engineering problem solving, Dr. Kramer claims, and instead places a premium on accurate modeling.

Engineering graduates, Dr. Kramer says, should be visionary and innovative. They must be able to identify new technologies and develop new products and services. They must be able to pull knowledge from many different resources. They must develop broad experience in the conceptualization, design, manufacturing and servicing of products, and use that experience to advance technology. And, in today's global society, they must experience cultures outside the United States.

Dr. Kramer has a vision of what an engineering education could be. He predicts engineering will become an attractive option to more students, and that business will increase its support and provision for such studies. He believes engineering programs will become more professional in their integration of the tools, techniques and services used by practicing engineers. Study should be less of an obstacle course, and concentrate more on identifying, motivating and training promising students for advanced study.

If the good doctor's concepts are to work, then industry must take an active role in mentoring engineering students so they don't lose interest, and they must work with universities to ensure graduates come to industry prepared with fundamental engineering skills.

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