STEM Education - We Get What We Deserve

In Order to Be Competitive in the World Today, We Need to Revitalize American Manufacturing

Walt BoyesBy Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

In the United States, primary election season is upon us. Including all the congressional campaigns and the presidential campaigns, more money will be spent on campaigning for high office than will be spent improving our Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education process. Forgive me if I see a problem here. In order to be competitive in the world today, we need to revitalize American manufacturing.

We know this. Every candidate for president knows this and spouts appropriate rhetoric about it. Each congressional candidate is for jobs, for manufacturing, for better education. They are all for motherhood, the flag and apple pie, too. But once they get elected, they immediately start cutting education and development money that could be used to support STEM education.

In his address to the Emerson Global Users Exchange last year, Steve Sonnenberg, Emerson Process Management's president, noted that it hired more than 4000 people in 2010-11. "We would have hired more," he said, "but we couldn't find the qualified people."

Sonnenberg isn't alone. The demographics are pretty clear. We've been saying for years that we have a crisis in staffing our manufacturing plants. Eventually, all the Baby Boomers will retire, and there are few to take their places.

But even if we threw large amounts of cash (the politician's ready response to challenges like this), we probably would have trouble making the STEM system work.

If we want a group of young automation professionals to follow us, we are going to have to go find them.

Last summer, I was on a panel discussion at a science-fiction convention in St. Louis and after the panel, I met a professor of physics at a major Illinois public university. "I am responsible for teaching education department students how to teach science," he told me, "and it is nearly impossible. They are about to go out in the world and teach elementary school, and to a person, they are afraid of science. Science is bad. Technology is scary. They all feel that way. By then it is too late to teach them differently. And so that's what they teach."

If we want to introduce more kids to manufacturing careers, that's the time we need to do it. And if our teachers are telling them that science is scary and technology is bad, we sure aren't going to get many of them interested in STEM careers.

Television is full of shows oriented toward STEM topics—"Mythbusters" and "HowStuffWorks," both on the Discovery Channel, and "How It's Made" on the Science Channel among others. These shows have large viewerships. The demographics skew toward younger viewers as well. So the interest is there. Why doesn't it transfer to manufacturing?

I think we're back to "science is bad and technology is scary," here. Kids watch these shows, but they have no way to get connected to these careers in real life. Teachers and guidance counselors don't seem to have much of a clue. If we want automation professionals and trained manufacturing workers, we are going to have to buy them that clue. If you want to see how to do that, visit Other automation companies are working with FIRST and other programs.

It is pretty clear that the government (federal, state or local) is not going to do much more than bloviate and pass unfunded mandates while they rob science education. So, my fellow automation professionals, if we want a group of young automation professionals to follow us, who have knowledge, skills, ambition and drive, we're going to have to go find them ourselves and show them where the goal is. Nobody is going to do it for us. So let's get off our collective duffs and go find some kids and get them interested in what we do. If we don't, just like in politics, we'll get what we deserve.