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Why the engineering skills gap should worry you

Posted by Chad O'Connor  March 26, 2014 10:10 AM

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Many tech companies in the U.S. are faced with an alarming negative trend. One-fifth of Baby Boomers will retire in the coming years, and much of the talent entering the workforce lacks the skills needed to fill increasingly technical positions. Put simply, we are experiencing a growing age gap in engineering-focused fields. This skills gap poses financial concerns for some of our nationís leading manufacturers, and ultimately affects the speed at which we can innovate and bring new products to businesses and consumers.

Facts and figures show the depth of the problem
According to a survey of industry senior executives commissioned by Advanced Technology Service, Inc. (ATS) and conducted by The Nielsen Company, 55 percent of the largest U.S. manufacturers (those with $1 billion or more in revenue) will be the hardest hit by the skills shortage, costing each company $100 million or more over the next five years.

With schools like MIT, Greater Boston is a hub for tech talent. In fact, interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors among college-going MA public school graduates is now around 40%.

A recent article published by Fortune revealed that the U.S. is producing 43 engineers per 100,000 inhabitants - well below Finland, Sweden, and France, who lead the EU in percentage of engineering grads per capita. While those numbers paint a grim picture for the U.S., Massachusetts contributes a significant percentage of those 43 engineers per 100,000 inhabitants. However, as one moves outside of the city, the talent pool and interest in STEM drops off sharply, particularly in the more rural areas of New England.

Take Maine, for example. Maine ranks 47th among states in the U.S. and is 60% below the U.S. average. As of September 30th, 2013, there were over 6,000 Engineering, Computer, and IT job postings in Maine, despite the fact that the state is only graduating 200 students per year with engineering degrees. This is a massive issue that Maine must address in order to succeed as a viable business community.

Private, nonprofit and public initiatives making a difference
Kepware Technologies, a software development company headquartered in Portland, Maine is addressing this problem head-on by identifying the source of the skills gap and taking action to correct the trend. This process starts with changing perceptions around what it means to be an engineer.

College-bound youth may not consider manufacturing as a viable career option because they believe the industry only offers low-paying manual labor positions. In reality, open positions are well paid and offer careers in a highly technical space that incorporates innovative hardware, software, and even virtual reality applications. Based on the Control Engineering 2013 salary and career survey, the average annual base salary for survey respondents was $92,918, with 70% expecting a salary increase and an average bonus of $10,486. The highest level of education completed by most respondents was a bachelor's degree.

Maine and Massachusetts, along with other progressive thinkers around New England and the rest of the nation, have moved forward with implementing different initiatives to close the skills gap. Education is of course the foundation, and the most effective STEM programs focus on fun and consistent technical education throughout the academic continuum.

The MA Department of Higher Education has administered the STEM Pipeline Fund since 2003. The goal of the fund is to increase the number of MA students that support fields in STEM industries, increase the number of qualified STEM teachers, and improve STEM educational offerings. The state also hosts an Annual STEM Summit to bring together educators, students, business leaders, and government officials to collaborate and discuss the Massachusetts' STEM Plan.

At Kepware, we recognize the need to support STEM advancement from early childhood through higher education. We recently developed an annual program that grants $10,000 worth of technology (including laptop computers) to a Maine primary school in need. The impact has inspired us to expand our reach from a one-time donation to an annual grant, allowing all primary schools throughout Maine to apply each spring.

Kepware is also active in the VEX Robotic Competition and the FIRST Robotics Competition in Maine, inspiring middle and high school students to pursue careers as engineers. Students use robotics building to learn how science, math, and engineering apply to the real world, while simultaneously developing the communication and teamwork skills that will be so critical to their success when they enter the workforce. Kepware's STEM engagement extends to secondary-level students with an annual scholarship program through the University of Maine, bolstered by a $30,000 software donation to the university's Electrical Engineering Technology (EET) program in February 2014. While funding and donations are great places to start, interaction and experience are also essential.

In addition to monetary donations, our organization strives to provide real world examples of a technical education at work. We often do this by inviting students to our headquarters or facilitating access to a cutting edge manufacturing environment. This may take the form of summer internships, field trips, or simply encouraging young people to drop by. The point is that students need engagement and real world examples to understand what a modern engineering position might look like.

How can we work together to prevent the growing engineering age gap?
I am calling on leaders in the industry to consider easy ways to change young peopleís perception of engineering by inviting students to tour company facilities and show them what engineering jobs looks like in the real world. Also, I am challenging leaders to think about ways to promote STEM education. Your organization may wish to sponsor a robotics team, adopt a classroom, or partner with a local science class and allow them to learn from real engineers.

Whatever the strategy, it starts with understanding and accepting that we are staring at a potential chasm, with consequences that may substantially impact our professional and even personal lives in the near future unless we take action now.

The next generation of engineers has grown up with technology around them, which should ease the transition, but the onus is on us to make sure that engineering is a path young people seriously consider, understand, and view as a viable career option.

I hope you will join me and make an effort to bolster interest in engineering amongst our youth because, after all, they may very well be the future of your company.

Brett Austin is the President of Kepware Technologies, a private software development company headquartered in Portland, Maine focused on communications for industrial automation.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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