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In race for technological supremacy; US still losing war of engineering talent.

Japan graduates about a fifth of its college students as engineers; that cOmPares with only about 7 percent of US students who pursue an engineering career. The result: The shortfall of Science and engineering baccalaureates may hit 45,000 by 1996 and zoom as high as 275,000 engineers and 400,000 scientists by 2006, according to Dr Robert R Spitzer, president of Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE).

One of the problems, the educator who is working hard to reverse the trend sees, is that students in the US get too little exposure to the advantages of pursuing a technological career. "If we are going to compete globally with the Japanese and others in engineering applications, pure research, and applied R&D, we're going to have to turn students onto engineering far earlier," he contends. He points out that a shortage of funding forces engineering colleges to concentrate on high school juniors or seniors and seldom allows any in depth student courting activity in the elementary or middle schools.

As MSOE chancellor Frank cannon, an engineering economist, Puts it, planting favorable impressions of engineering as a career path has to Start earlier in the educational process. "Engineering is critical to our survival as a first-class nation, and we're dipping deep into the well of prospective engineers to satisfy what we believe will be the demands of the 1990s and 2000s," he adds. Some colleges and universities are pulling out all the stops to attract students. Dean of admissions Owen Smith relies on an aggressive outreach program that includes mailings to a national "pool" list Of students who display an aPtitude in math and science related courses followed by telephone calls and even video tapes and personal visits where practical.

Another ploy: Most engineering colleges offer to matriculate students in peripheral business schools," says Dr George Lephardt, chairman of MSOE's business and management systems program.

The 87-year-old urban college established yet a different type of program in the 1970s. Where most business schools, he explains, tend to serve the office environment, MSOE's business minor (a degree pro gram is also available) is production and manufacturing oriented with emphasis on the production side of business in addition to the office areas.

Dr Lephardt believes the increase in his business program rests partly in a shift in emphasis throughout industry. "Effective managers of today, and especially tomorrow, must be power users of computers, be comfortable with technical concepts, and be skilled in human resource management. They must be able to use their leadership skills and broad-based knowledge of operations to lead others. You get that combination of education in an operations-oriented program rather than a behavior-oriented atmosphere, Dr Lephardt says.

Even with all their efforts, educators admit that they are not attacking the core problem. An engineering curriculum is a tough package and many young people are inclined to take an easier route to their future through a less demanding track. Young people seem to be avoiding engineering, math, and aU the science-related fields, Mr Smith believes. A basic cause, he feels, is that although teachers and guidance counselors in the younger grades are truly dedicated, few enter the teaching profession with a strong technical background. Thus, their concept of engineering is second-hand at best. Their role modeling is as educators rather than engineers. Their primary interest is in developing a well-rounded student who has mind-expansion capabilities.

"We must be conscious that 80 percent of all knowledge has existed for only 20 years; up to 90 percent will have existed for no more than 30 years by 2000. Thus education must come to grips with the need for preparing more students to excel in advancing math and science-related technology of the future," Mr Smith says.

Unlike law, medicine, real estate, and other professions that are commonly made highly-visible in movies and television sitcoms, there are few realistic engineering role models for young people to follow, Mr Smith feels, adding that even TV engineers such as "MacGyver" who are favorably portrayed still present an unrealistic concept of the profession.

"Better role models, such as astronauts, biomedical engineers, and other industry CEOs with engineering degrees need to champion the cause," Mr Smith says. He once canvassed grade-school youngsters and found their perception of an engineer was the building maintenance "engineer" whose oily and necessarily dirty working conditions overshadowed concepts of degreed astronautic or other higher technology engineers.

"We label people as engineers who never stepped foot in an engineering college, " Mr Smith points out, and that's to our detriment. We need to monitor the profession's reputation and insist that engineer' be applied to only degreed professions."

In his talks with youngsters, he also discovered a perception that engineers are introverts or "nerds" with narrowly channeled lifestyles.

Engineering education develops a base of knowledge that may be expanded through additional studies in the field or may be used as a foundation for advancing into other fields, the educator points out, adding: A good engineering curriculum includes science, business, communications, and humanities in addition to math, problem solving, creative thinking, and other elements needed to succeed anywhere.

"This story must reach young people early in their schooling as they develop a positive attitude toward learning math and science basics in grades K through 12. If the profession hasn't made its impression on students by the time they reach high school, we're likely to lose them to other professions that have greater daily visibility in their lives," Mr. Smith contends. More evidence has surfaced indicating the capital spending boom will avoid a bust. A recent survey by Data Resources Inc (DRI), a research arm of McGrawHill, reveals that spending for plant and equipment this year will grow by 4.4 percent, slightly ahead of the 4 percent increase anticipated for prices in that area.

The new estimates suggest that the biggest gains (in current dollar terms) will come from the motor vehicle industry (14.3 percent), aircraft industry (9.5 percent), fabricated metals (7.9 percent), paper (14.2 percent), and petroleum (8.2 percent). Industries that plan to spend less for plant and equipment include the stone-clay-glass industry and textile makers.

In the fabricated metals area, big spending increases are being predicted in the cutlery, hand tool, and hardware industries (25 percent) and in the plumbing and heating industry (also about 25 percent). On the other end of the scale, metal forgings and stampings are predicting spending decreases by as much as 6 percent.

Some major increases in spending plans are also showing up in the nonelectrical machinery sector including farm machinery (31.6 percent), construction machinery (16.1 percent), metalworking machinery (42.9 percent), and the special industrial machinery area (143.9 percent).

The numbers seem even more bullish considering the recent declines in factory operating rates and profits, lending further credence to the predictions that any recession in the capital goods area will be avoided. Further optimism is gleaned from projections the survey makes for 1991. The DRI survey indicates spending totals are expected to be up about 2 percent next year.

Also on an upbeat note: Even flat plant and equipment spending should be enough to assure continued increases in production potential. This past year, for example, US factories boosted capacity by close to 3 percent.

It's expected that the increase in capacity will be enough to meet projected demand gains as the survey sees real factory sales rising 3.3 percent with durable goods sales advancing at a somewhat faster 3.6 percent pace. The largest sales gains this year are expected to be recorded in the nonelectrical machinery industry (12.1 percent) and in fabricated metals (7.1 percent) while demand in the auto and aircraft industries is predicted to be off 2.6 percent and 4.8 percent respectively.
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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