Engineering Education: Lean Manufacturing’s Achilles Heel

A disturbing, but not surprising report on foreign college students enrolling – actually, NOT enrolling – in U.S. science and engineering programs should be of concern to every manufacturer.

            Prepared by Jane Wishneff, an author and attorney with the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, the new report notes that foreign student enrollment in U.S. college science and engineering (S&E) programs dropped by 2.4 percent in 2003, the first decline in 50 years. Foreign enrollment fell another 1.3 percent in 2004, and graduate school admissions of foreign students fell 18 percent in 2004, followed by a 3 percent increase in 2005.

            The reasons cited for the decline include stricter visa regulations since 9/11, foreign countries highlighting advantages of staying home (such as lower tuition rates and costs of living), and competition from countries such as Australia and England.

            But the real problem is the sad state of S&E education in the United States.

            “Unfortunately, the American educational system does not produce enough talent in the S&E fields to meet the need for high-skilled workers in the manufacturing sector,” Wishneff writes. In 2003, the report says, 55 percent of engineering doctorates awarded in the U.S. went to foreign-born students, while the figure for doctorates in mathematics, computer sciences and agricultural sciences was nearly 44 percent.

            Even worse, the report notes, is that fewer than half of the undergraduate students entering college with a science or engineering major completed a degree in either field throughout the 1990s, and very few students transfer in from other areas.

            Of course, the biggest impact is on manufacturing, which employed 59 percent of all full-time scientists and engineers performing industrial R&D in January 2001, and 56 percent at the beginning of 2004.

            Obviously, finding good people is not going to become easier for manufacturers anytime soon. And that has implications for the spread of lean throughout manufacturing – and other industries – because lean requires good people who understand engineering principles.

            Most efforts to improve the situation are focusing on businesses and schools (and occasionally government). All that is fine, but personally, I think we need to involve Hollywood. And that’s not a joke.

            There have been widespread reports of increased enrollment in college programs on forensic sciences, due in large part to the popularity of “CSI” and similar programs.

            We need a show that makes engineers the heroes. The “Star Trek” programs had noble chief engineers, but a program set 300 years in the future does little to spur interest in jobs available today.

            I’ll admit it may be difficult to create a program about manufacturing that is entertaining and popular, but I can’t believe it’s impossible. Aaron Sorkin, we could use your help.

            Short of a TV program (which I’ll admit isn’t likely anytime soon), we need a good PR campaign. And I’ll suggest a starting point.

            When I attended the annual conference of the Institute of Industrial Engineers in Orlando this past spring, one of the keynote speakers was Kathy Kilmer, director of industrial engineering at Walt Disney World. Her presentation included a slickly-produced video in which engineers at Disney talked about what they do. (Kilmer commented, “There are advantages to working for an entertainment company.”)

It may not have been produced for this purpose, but in my view, the video was the best recruiting film for engineering that I have ever seen. (OK, I haven’t seen any other engineering recruiting films – how many are there? – but you get my point.)

All this talk about television, Disney and PR may seem rather lighthearted, but the workforce situation is serious, and we need to think of new ways to address it.

Any other ideas?

1 comment:

Ralph Bernstein said...

10/13/2006 6:32:57 PM
Re: Engineering Education: Lean Manufacturing’s Achilles Heel
By: mwm_37

It is distressing to many people that enrollment in S&E is dropping. I went to a small prestigious S&E college in Southern California, and I find it distressing that many of my former classmates are now in Marketing! Why? Well, because that is where the money is. Medical schools are seeing the same downward trends that S&E is seeing, because the money in medicine is dropping. Typically, the smart kids follow the big payout opportunities. I suspect its the same reason that MBAs proliferate.

How to boost interest in S&E? The answer is for S&E to be more lucrative. It may become that way when the supply of scientists and engineers dwindle.

BTW, I saw that video at the IEE, but I did not come away with the same impression. I felt that she was trying too hard to sell it - it almost smelled desperate.