By Robert Gardner
AEROSPACE AND DEFENSE COMPANIES
ARE WORKING HARD TO ATTRACT YOUNG AMERICANS TO ENGINEERING.
WITH MUCH OF THEIR WORK REQUIRING SECURITY CLEARANCES ONLY
U.S. CITIZENS CAN OBTAIN, THEY HAVE NO CHOICE.
The latest numbers from the National Science Foundation Science
and Engineering Indicators show that although approximately
one third of all U.S. undergraduate degrees are earned in
science and engineering, the portion of those degrees earned
in engineering have been declining for the past 10 years.
Since 1975, the United States has dropped from third to thirteenth
in terms of the number of 24-year-olds holding natural science
and engineering degrees.
Industry and academia say K-12 teachers and high school guidance
counselors are the key to bringing more and better prepared
students into engineering. "We find high school teachers
and guidance counselors aren't pushing math and science,"
says Ray Haynes, director of university relations for Northrup
Grumman. "There are kids coming out of eighth grade
who aren't encouraged to go for calculus." Secondary
school teachers, on the other hand, maintain that the profession
hasn't done enough to change its stuffy image and low
profile. Many students don't even know what engineers
All this comes as a time when the country is looking for
engineers to help strengthen its defenses. "We need
to move beyond the 65,000 or so engineers we produce today
to 80 to 90,000," says Isadore Davis, manager of engineering
university relations at Raytheon Co. With defense spending
set to rise 10.3 percent—one of the largest increases
in the 2005 budget—the war on terror, the fighting in
Iraq and Afghanistan, and the nuclear tensions with North
Korea and Iran, the defense industry's demand for engineering
students is likely to remain high. "Our technical capability,"
says Jay Snellenberger, manager of employee development for
Rolls-Royce, "is the engine that drives our economy."
Industry and academia have stepped up efforts to direct students
into the pipeline leading to engineering programs. Companies
involved in defense and aerospace work have a particular interest
in getting American students into engineering programs. Most
aerospace companies, Northrup Grumman's Haynes says,
can hire only U.S. citizens because so much of their work
requires security clearances only citizens can obtain. Northrop
Grumman's biggest customers, he adds, are the Air Force,
NASA, and the Department of Defense. And much of that work
is classified. Companies can hire foreign graduates of U.S.
schools, but it takes time for them to become citizens and
get security clearance. "We could hire a Russian national
[for instance], but it could take five years for him to get
clearance," Haynes says. "And during that time
the person is useless to us."
In addition to increasing the number of high school students
going into undergraduate engineering programs, aerospace and
defense companies and academia are working to get more engineering
students into graduate programs. "We have a big issue
in hiring master's and Ph.D. students because so many
of them are foreign nationals," Haynes says. "We
[the aerospace companies] tend to end up robbing from each
other." According to ASEE data, the percentage of doctoral
degrees awarded to foreign nationals rose from 45.6 to 55.2
percent from 1999 to 2003. The percentage of master's
degrees awarded to foreign nationals rose from 39.7 to 46
percent over the same period.
"Brain drain is a big problem and we're all worried
about it," says Joseph Tidwell, coordinator of engineering
and technical education for the Boeing Co. Recruiting graduate
students has proven particularly difficult. "We hurt
the worst when we go after graduate students for defense work,"
The United States has long relied on international students
to fill its graduate engineering programs and stay in this
country after getting their degrees. "International
students for decades have been coming here to be educated
and many have stayed to become the great engineers and technologists
of this country," says Eva Pell, dean of graduate studies
at Pennsylvania State University.
"We've had a drop of over 40 percent in the number
of international graduate student applications," Pell
says. Last year, the top research universities across the
country experienced, on average, a drop of 32 percent in international
student applications. There are a number of reasons for this,
from the SARS scare closing Chinese GRE testing centers to
stricter, post-9/11 security measures that tend to make foreigners
feel unwelcome, and competition from universities in the United
Kingdom and Australia. "For a long time the United States
was the only game on the planet in terms of providing a quality
technical education," Pell says. "That's
not the case anymore."
Educators say that the recruitment burden isn't just
the responsibility of high school and middle school teachers.
"There is a problem at the university level in terms
of directing students into graduate school," Pell says.
"They don't see the value of engineering, so many
of them go into law or business."
WHERE TO LOOK
Aerospace and defense companies are reaching out to K-12
students. "By the time you get to junior and senior
year in high school, it's almost too late," Northrup
Grumman's Haynes says.
"Like most companies, we're doing things with
school boards and universities regionally," Boeing's
Tidwell says. That includes directing money toward universities
that provide training for teachers of science- and engineering-related
subjects. Boeing has sent over 100 teachers to the National
Space Camp. The company also participates in the national
"Job Shadow Day" in which high school teachers
are brought into companies and allowed to "shadow"
an engineer to see how the technical subject matter taught
in schools is applied.
Boeing's outreach program also focuses on student retention.
For the past 12 years, the company has teamed with local school
boards and universities to participate in the "Choices"
program. Offered in 40 states, the program brings ninth graders
into Boeing facilities for two one-hour sessions during which
they talk to an engineer and learn about different career
In the large Hispanic population in Arizona, where one of
Boeing's regional offices is located, children often
leave school and take up their parents' line of work.
This happens for both cultural reasons and out of economic
necessity. "We talk to them [the students] and show
them how school is important to them, their families, and
their futures," Tidwell says.
Northrup Grumman's outreach work is also handled by
people in local offices because they know the needs of the
community. The Northrup Grumman foundation distributes money
across the country in the form of grants that address education-related
initiatives that promote the advancement of literacy, math,
science, and technology. A portion of that money goes to the
Redondo Beach school district near Northrup Grumman's
Beverly Hills headquarters. The company provides funding and
school supplies for things like science fairs. Like Boeing
and Raytheon, Northrup Grumman supports numerous efforts to
increase diversity within engineering. All three are corporate
sponsors of the Society of Black Engineers.
Raytheon is actively involved with SECME Inc., a nonprofit
organization that works with companies, universities, and
school systems to prepare underrepresented students to study
science-, technology-, and engineering-related subjects in
college. They send their engineers out to talk to students
about how engineering is responsible for almost all of today's
At the university level, Raytheon employees serve on advisory
boards across the country. They advise deans and professors
on curriculum development, the latest technology, and attributes
industry is looking for in engineering graduates. "We
are the customers of universities," Davis says. His
company has also worked with schools such as the University
of Puerto Rico and the University of Texas-El Paso to help
them prepare for ABET accreditors' visits to evaluate
how well their programs have met Engineering Criterion 2000.
The Rolls-Royce company is partnering with Purdue University,
the Indiana state government, and Project Lead the Way to
give K-12 students an inside look at manufacturing. Called
"Building the Innovation Generation," the collaboration's
goal is to get students excited about engineering, says Jay
Snellenberger, manager, employee development, strategic engineering,
and business development. Rolls-Royce brings engineering faculty
members to their facilities to give them real world experience
they can take back to the classroom. The education and outreach
model the collaboration is developing is applicable to disciplines
outside engineering, and the partners intend to hand it off
to any interested parties.
When Northrup Grumman's Ray Haynes spoke recently to
a group of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, he asked
how many were taking engineering. Half of them raised their
hands. "The Air Force used to get all their engineers
from the academy," Haynes says. "Now they have
to go elsewhere as well."
Foreign nationals have long played a big part in the nation's
engineering workforce. But increased security needs and a
drop in international applications have underscored the importance
of increasing the number of domestic graduate students becoming
engineers. With terrorism on the rise and nuclear threats
from a number of countries, the United States needs engineers
as fast as universities can produce them.
Robert Gardner is associate editor of Prism.