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STEM and the U.S. Manufacturing Conundrum

September 28, 2011 - 1 Comment

The Conundrum

In my most recent blog “U.S. manufacturing: is it sustainable?“, I referenced an article about how U.S. manufacturing has been leading the economy out of the depths of the Great Recession.  The authors put forward a thesis with supporting data that suggest Americans believe the manufacturing industry is the basis for wealth creation and is fundamental to a sustained and successful U.S. economy.

The rub is that only 30% of Americans said they have or would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career.

Why such a discrepancy? An answer to this question is not simple. However, I do believe we must seek that answer and address the gap, if the U.S. is to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Being an engineer myself–a manufacturing and controls engineer no less–I know the first and most essential step to a solution is making sure we’ve defined the problem well.

A 2009 survey by the American Society for Quality, as reported on, helps to shine a light on our problem.

According to the survey, the top three reasons why kids aren’t interested in engineering:

  • Kids don’t know much about engineering (44 percent).
  • Kids prefer a more exciting career than engineering (30 percent).
  • They don’t feel confident enough in their math or science skills (21 percent) to be good at it. This is despite the fact that the largest number of kids ranked math (22 percent) and science (17 percent) as their favorite subjects.

Survey findings on the adult side:

  • Only 20 percent of parents have encouraged or will encourage their child(ren) to consider an engineering career.
  • The vast majority of parents (97 percent) believe that knowledge of math and science will help their children have a successful career.

So, while American children and adults both feel that math and science are important (even enjoyable), there is an ironic disconnect (cognitive dissociation?) between recognizing the importance and committing to pursue a career in engineering and manufacturing.

The STEM Solution

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are broadly recognized as academic subjects vital to U.S. education and competitiveness, even transcending the bickering, bipartisan divides of Washington, DC. In 2006, George W. Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which aimed to significantly increase federal funding for advanced R&D programs. Just three months ago, on June 24, 2011, President Obama announced the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, which is “a national effort bringing together industry, universities, and the federal government to invest in emerging technologies that will create high quality manufacturing jobs and enhance our global competitiveness.”

STEM is the core curriculum of manufacturing, the essence of what is required to know how to make things and make things better, so with all of the attention and investment into “stemming” the STEM crisis, why aren’t we seeing more kids inspired, encouraged, or even cajoled to go into manufacturing and engineering careers?

It’s all about exposure and that personal spark.

In a response to my recent blog on sustainability of the U.S. manufacturing industry, Mr. Gandecha pointed to the story of his manufacturing engineering career path in Kenya that was encouraged by parents, educators, government and private industry as a means to contribute to and gain economic prosperity.  He then woefully mused that parents in the U.S., himself included, don’t really encourage their children to go into engineering or manufacturing. Nor do U.S. educators, nor government, nor industry leaders.  At least not consistently. With all of the outsourcing and right-sizing of manufacturing enterprises during the last several decades, Americans–both parents and children alike–have less and less exposure.  “The art, science and business of making things,” as Mr. Gandecha articulated, goes unnoticed, and a whole generation of children has gone uninspired.

My Personal Spark

I hail from South Carolina, which typically ranks between 45th and 50th on any list that is taking measure and comparing state academic standards, achievement, and public education. STEM might be considered a four-letter word in certain parts. I happen to grow up on the western side of the state in a town that borders Aiken, known primarily for its equestrian flair and the great “bomb-making factory”, that is the U.S. Department of Energy Savannah River Site (SRS).  Built in the late forties to utilize the low-mineral cooling waters of the Savannah River, SRS was constructed solely for the production of enriched plutonium and tritium, literally constituting the core of our nation’s nuclear atomic weaponry.  For the latter part of the 20th century, Aiken regularly held title to the most PhD engineers per ca pita in the country.

As a consequence to these surroundings, I grew up knowing A LOT of engineers, whose halo effect helped drive a much higher standard of STEM education in my small town.  And while my Dad was an R&D textile chemist, it was my exposure to those SRS engineers and love of math and physics that destined me to engineering.  I was an all-around ‘A’ student, which afforded me an opportunity to apprentice (4x minimum wage!) as an engineer at Savannah River Site during the summers after my junior and senior years in high school. I went on to college as a “co-op student,” alternating semesters between work at SRS and studies at university. All tolled, I completed more than two years of full-time experience at SRS–rotating between environmental physics and robotics in the laboratories, process control engineering at the nuclear reactor and old tank farm waste facilities, and design and construction engineering at the scaled testing mock-up and new waste processing facilities–before completing an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Clemson University.  Why Clemson?  Well, that’s another story that relates to my view of The Future …

The Future

Tonight, I leave on a trip with my oldest daughter, a junior in high school, to tour my graduate alma mater, Virginia Tech.  While we initially chose the weekend destination to enjoy a Top 20 NCAAF match-up between Clemson and VaTech on Saturday, teachers’ work day on Friday (school off for my daughter) initiated the idea to leave a day earlier, have a tour, and talk to administration.  Why VaTech?  Well, it turns out that my daughter has expressed an interest in engineering.  Hmmm … wonder what sparked that one?  Stay tuned for my next blog on our campus visit, the marketing of engineering education to women, and the future of U.S. manufacturing (at least in the Namboodri household) …

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  1. As engineers, we are very skeptical of terms like ‘marketing’ and ‘branding’; if we want our profession to be attractive to high school students, we must market it, and protect the ‘Engineer’ brand. Too often our media and teachers blur the boundaries between Engineering as a professional position, as a skilled trade and as semi-skilled labour.