By Rick Stephens
High-tech manufacturing companies like Boeing are concerned about the United States’ ability to sustain its leadership role in technology and innovation. The state of American education—and even the academic rigor required to earn an engineering degree—has become a frequent talking point at the national level. Some even mistakenly theorize that our students are not up to the challenge of studying engineering, math, and science because it’s just too hard. The answer to this national crisis lies not in changing the engineering, math, and science curriculum but in changing learning environments and how these subjects are taught.
What difference will this make? Plenty. Over the past six years, the number of engineering enrollments in U.S. universities has increased about 83,000, to slightly more than 450,000. Yet the annual number of engineers graduating from U.S. engineering schools has remained relatively flat, averaging about 74,500 during the same time span. This trend is particularly alarming because despite about 8% unemployment nationwide, the skills needed by high-tech industries are expected to outpace the supply, especially as seasoned and skilled workers retire and insufficient numbers of capable workers are being prepared to replace them.
Right now half of the students who show up for the first year of engineering school graduate four years later—in other words, about a 50% yield. But some universities are achieving an 85% yield. And if we were able to get an 85% yield on all engineering curricula, we’d have about 110,000 engineering graduates each year, much closer to what we need in this nation to narrow the skills gap and ensure future competitiveness.
Those engineering schools that are succeeding in graduating more students tend to follow four simple yet highly effective best practices. Incoming freshmen are assigned to a professor who mentors and guides students during the transition into college. Engineering professors teach two of the highest dropout courses for engineering students—mathematics and physics—and emphasize practical application versus pure theory. Freshmen are assigned hands-on engineering projects so they can experience solving problems and working with customers. And schools continue mentorship and guidance throughout the undergraduate experience to ensure that curriculum, internships, and other experiences effectively support selected majors.
Students learn best by doing, not rote memorization, and experiential learning delivers skills training that is directly transferrable to the workplace. Experiential learning programs also enable students to see themselves as future innovators and even entrepreneurs. And further integrating classroom learning with practical, real-world experiences not only inspires imagination and innovation but also creates a career-ready workforce able to fill the current and future demand for technical workers.
We need to think beyond the classroom, because a classroom education by itself is not enough to prepare the workforce of the future. Boeing’s partnerships with two-year vocational schools to create hands-on career pathway programs enable workers to gain the skills needed for in-demand, cutting-edge aerospace manufacturing jobs. And programs like FIRST Robotics—where students and their mentors build complex robots—not only teach technical skills but also develop important life skills like critical thinking, leadership, and teaming. These are but two examples of how success is being achieved through hands-on, real-life projects and experiences.
We also need to get back to basics and reinforce the importance of role models, mentors, and incentives and motivations to work hard. We need parents, caregivers, teachers, media, and others to emphasize the importance of engineering, math, and science so more young people are motivated and inspired to pursue technical careers. Finally, we need to ensure that education policies and programs incorporate outcome-based performance measures so we can adjust in response to the data we see and continue to provide lifelong learning opportunities, including retraining, so more of our citizens enter the workplace with the skills that industry needs.
Nothing is more fundamental to sustaining our ability to compete and win in a global economy than a strong pipeline of skilled workers. As technological advances accelerate across all industries, our nation will face greater challenges in finding workers who will provide the creativity to drive growth and a competitive advantage. Through a combination of education reform and real-world learning, we can narrow the skills gap and ensure continued innovation and sustained prosperity.
Rick Stephens is Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Administration, The Boeing Company; Chairman, Aerospace Industries Association Workforce Steering Committee