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Reengineering America's Future

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I've had the opportunity to meet with many engineering leaders over the past decade. I've observed how they work, and talked about their challenges and successes. Our (Knovel) customers represent more than 600 organizations worldwide including 70 Fortune 500 companies and 80 percent of the top engineering schools in the United States. In this context, it's no surprise that I pay attention to statistics related to the next generation of engineers.

In the June 14th issue of Fortune, David Kaplan highlights worrisome statistics in his article, "The STEM Challenge":

  1. Out of 4 million students who entered high school in 2001, fewer that 200,000 will graduate with a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degree.
  2. For every new Ph.D. in physical sciences, the US graduates 50 new MBA's, and 18 lawyers.

Adding to this, the current population of experienced, baby-boomer engineers is aging, and many will soon retire. Replacing these experienced engineers is, and will continue to be, difficult. A recent Boston Globe article highlighted this challenge as it relates to Raytheon Co. and their plans to hire 4,500 engineers this year. According to chief executive William Swanson, they're encountering difficulties in finding good candidates.

So why should we care? Simply put, jobs and economic security are at stake. China and India have increased their influence significantly with successes resulting from developing a workforce that increasingly has relevant technical skills and a STEM education. According to an article by Keith Richburg in the Washington Post, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest automaker last year and is now leading the world in high-speed rail. These facts are a strong indicator of fierce global competition. A market leader today may be out of the game tomorrow.

Facing an acute problem with long term effects, government, business and education have responded with a variety of programs, including President Obama's Educate to Innovate and the inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival, that aim to encourage more students to pursue STEM degrees and to help educators teach math and science in a way that is interesting, relevant and engaging. Moreover, an article in The New York Times recently featured a variety of programs that introduce engineering concepts to elementary school students. Still, it will take years to determine the success of these efforts.

In the meantime, science information doubles every 15-20 years and 83 percent of an engineer's required knowledge is acquired post-graduation*. As many companies tap the raw talent of the next generation, it's crucial to consider how we can help this up-and-coming group to hit the ground running. When it comes to STEM, we need to have a long term outlook and consider the tools and education that engineers need now and throughout their careers.

Knovel provides one of these tools by supplying engineers and engineering students with reliable online technical references and interactive data they can easily incorporate into their workflow. Engineers tap Knovel to find answers to technical questions, particularly during the product development and design stages. During this period of innovation, engineers need top-notch tools that help them to learn faster, increase productivity and avoid costly mistakes. In many ways, we are in business to help engineers be the best they can be.

When I think of some of the conversations I've had with engineering leaders, I am struck by evidence of both a digital and generational divide. A vice president of engineering in a large engineering design firm recently told me that his engineers still go to physical libraries, wait for a reference book to be mailed to them if it's not immediately available, search though a book for the information they need, physically copy an equation into their notebooks and then use their calculators to solve it. Contrast this experienced engineer with a recent graduate whom has grown up in the digital age and turns to the Internet and online tools for research. The next generation of engineers must be both tech savvy and well educated.

As a company focused solely on the engineering community and providing that community with the information and tools they need to be more innovative, we have a unique seat from which to watch how the STEM efforts shake out. And now, more than ever, it's clear that finding ways to arm burgeoning and established engineering students with the insight, experience and tools required for success is part of a larger global story.

As we look to the future, we envision one where the engineer is placed alongside the athletes and actors of today's world. To get there, we must remain committed to the intrinsic value and role science, technology, engineering and math play in our economy. The future of engineering is closely tied to the future of America. As we work to re-engineer America, let's not lose sight of the importance of two things: 1) investing in our current workforce by providing them with cutting-edge tools and resources to facilitate innovation, and 2) ensuring our children are exposed to STEM from day one.

*Communication Patterns of Engineers, Tenopir, et al, IEEE 2004