What about the kids?

As an editor, lots of stuff ends up on my radar in the course of a day. Yesterday, there was the news item to the ControlGlobal site about the new biotech education center at North Carolina State University. (See also Walt's blog entry of yesterday). Good for NCSU. Good for ABB whose 800 Xa technology will be installed there. Good for all the young engineers who will get to use it and learn more about their chosen profession. There was also a visit from the folks at AutomationDirect during which the conversation drifted to that companies support for a local team of middle and high school students competing in a robotics competition and the question of encouraging interest in engineering early on. This morning I came across the following item online:
Industrialized nations must convince older workers to stay on the job beyond retirement age or face a skills shortage and higher labor costs, a study released Tuesday warned.The study conducted earlier this year for the American Association of Retired People (AARP) by global consultancy Towers Perrin projects that, by 2016, 39 percent of the population in the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations will be aged 50 or more compared with 30 percent in 1996. At the same time, the percentage of the labor force that falls in the traditional working age -- 15-49 years -- will have fallen from 51 percent in 1996 to 45 percent in 2016, the study predicted.
We all know this drill. The older workers are retiring in droves and there aren't enough kids coming up to fill the gaps. Programs like the NCSU biotech lab will help. Not to dump on that idea, but programs like the one Automation Direct is involved in will help more. So will efforts such as the much-publicized National Instruments Mindstorms initiative with toymaker Lego to teach robotics and computer programming to youngsters. By the time young people are old enough to take advantage of the NCSU program, they've already decided on science and engineering as a career. We need to get them much sooner than that, while they're still debating between fireman, rock star, astronaut, video game designer and, please God, engineer.   How young? Well, this weekend, I spent an hour or so with the youngest engineers--the ones who still need afternoon naps, the occasional diaper change and who work with their "special blankies" near to hand. But they--both sexes, mind you--are natural-born engineers. Dump out the tub of big Legos (the ones designed for little hands lacking fully developed fine-motor skills), and they're all over them. (BTW, this is true of other blocks too.) They instinctively get the idea of stacking and building and are fascinated to learn in real time that, golly, gravity works every time. At that age, the curiosity is so intense that they suck up lessons like Cheerios. All the way down to grade school is where manufacturers need to go to start recruiting the next generation of engineers.  What I don't understand is why this is still news. I've been covering manufacturing for more than a couple of decades now, and I remember writing in the late 80s about how manufacturers needed to get their story of good careers in engineering and technical factory work down into the high schools and grade schools. I remember covering the fledgling programs of cooperation between local industry and schools to get students interested. And always, there were a few passionately interested companies willing to devote time and resources to the big job of developing and coordinating such programs for their local areas. And there were some remarkable success stories. But for the most part, industry has been silent. Why? Lots of good reasons, I'm sure. But now, 25 years later, the problem is worse, not better. Those few good programs are mere fingers in the dike. They can't stop the deluge. Nobody does marketing better than American business. I learned over the weekend (having been mercifully not in need of such products for a number of years) that American marketers can sell disposable diapers in a choice of colors and cute designs.  We can build a billion-dollar industry selling tap water at $1.50 a bottle in spite of the fact that same stuff comes out of the faucet for fractions of a cent. Surely we can figure out a way to "sell" engineering and technical careers to kids. The Control editors were talking over the coffee maker about this subject yesterday afternoon. Look to see more about it here on SoundOff! and in the pages of the magazine in the months ahead.

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  • The AARP study on trends in G7 countries presents figures for % of the *population* aged 50+, but for ages 15-49 years the figures are for % of the *labor force*. Is this an apples and oranges comparison, or just a typo?

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  • I make presentations in "math day" at my kids' elemetary school. I use engineering examples from the field, and even a flight plant from the last time I made a serious cross country trip. I tinker in my barn with my kids watching. Working on an old farm tractor is impressive to a six year old boy. Plumbing repairs may not be fun for me, but my kids think it's pretty neat.

    My eight year old daughter asks me if it's hard to be an engineer. I'm impressed that she even asks. I've had them solder and desolder all sorts of parts in a radio kit.

    One web site I like to visit is http://blog.wired.com/geekdad/

    Engineers aren't born. They're made. I don't know if my kids will ever take an interest when they leave home. But at least they won't have any doubts about what I do.

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