Expanding our tools to tighten the Skills Gap

Issues concerning the recruitment and retention of the up-and-coming science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce have begun to take center stage – with no shortage of evidence to support the claim.

By Chris Forbes, Knovel August 26, 2010

“Skills Gap”. These two words that have created a buzz and even paranoia throughout the manufacturing and engineering industries. Issues concerning the recruitment and retention of the up-and-coming science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce have begun to take center stage – with no shortage of evidence to support the claim.

It’s important to distinguish exactly why educating the up-and-coming STEM generation is vital to both of these industries and the economy at large. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the first members of the Baby Boom generation will reach the age of 65 by 2011. As they begin to retire, there’s an increased concern that this transition will create an alarming skill gap; mainly because by 2025, Generation Y (ages 18-32) will make up 75% of the global workforce. To that point, the U.S. also faces a decrease in the number of students pursuing STEM degrees.

A 2008 report by the Aerospace Industries Association indicated that only 5% of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States are in engineering (roughly 70,000), compared to 20% in Asia, and this number is not enough to replenish the U.S. workforce moving forward. According to a 2010 study conducted by Aviation Week magazine, 19% of companies with 100,000+ workers are now at the retirement age; with the percentage jumping to more than 30% in 2012 and nearly 40% by 2014.

These escalating demographic transformations in the workforce, coupled with the lack of students pursuing STEM degrees, are an imminent call to action. This action must be taken by organizations in the manufacturing and engineering industries that will suffer the consequences of a skill gap and lack of qualified candidates, as well as government entities focusing on strengthening our education system.

A recent article in Newsweek quoted Deborah L. Wince-Smith, president of the Council of Competiveness, saying “Talent will be the oil of the 21st Century.” Considering that America ranks the fourth-most competitive nation after China, India and South Korea, it’s clear we need to reevaluate best practices for building up a competent pool of candidates. The same article also cited information from a report issued in late June by the Council on Competitiveness, which surveyed 400 global CEOs.

When asked what a key factor to drive manufacturing competitiveness was, the answer was innovation. So, how do we spur innovation? A big piece to solving the innovation puzzle begins with education and finding new, more efficient ways to train the up-and-coming engineers and providing those already in the workforce with the resources and tools they need to do things faster and smarter.

Tightening the skill gap from one generation to the next will play a quintessential role in this innovation endeavor. A report by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College cited the importance of transferring job knowledge from one generation of workers to the next. There are a number of reasons for this, but as engineers know all too well, time is money and when the median cost of replacing employees in the manufacturing sector is $5,000/employee (compared with $3,000/employee in other sectors) it’s important to get the right candidate for the job the first time around; someone that can hit the ground running from day one.

Fortunately, there are organizations that aim to address issues related to skill and expertise gaps specifically for the STEM workforce. These organizations include Educate to Innovate and the inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival, which aim to encourage more students to pursue STEM degrees and to help educators teach math and science in a way that is interesting, relevant and engaging. U.S. aerospace and defense companies are pitching in to lend a hand too, supporting these education programs that encourage students to pursue technical careers.

Training, resources, tools – these are all important ingredients for developing an innovative workforce. However, while not every industry requires intensive training and an ever-growing complex skill set in order to remain cutting-edge, the engineering industry does. Engineers need innovative tools and resources that allow them to succeed and grow, and preparing these workers at a collegiate level will positively impact the U.S. engineering and manufacturing industry as a whole.

Transferring knowledge from one generation to the next is a necessary step if we want to help eliminate a skill gap from these industries. In order to address this pending skill gap, we must focus on enabling workforce innovation by encouraging young students to pursue careers in these fields, utilizing the knowledge and skill-set expertise of veterans in this field with mentorship programs and investing in cutting-edge tools and resources that align with the ever-evolving engineering research and workflow process.

As Knovel’s president and CEO, Chris Forbes has piloted Knovel’s growth and strategic direction since founding the company in 2000. Knovel is a Web-based application integrating technical information with analytical and search tools to drive innovation and deliver answers engineers can trust. Knovel has more than 700 customers worldwide including 70 of the Fortune 500 companies and more than 300 leading universities.