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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth
Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth
By Sandra I. Erwin

U.S. defense executives are pushing back on suggestions that a shortage of science, math and engineering graduates is a fake crisis.

A deficit of STEM (short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skilled workers has been the conventional wisdom in Washington for years, but a crop of studies in recent months has poured cold water on the notion, embraced by defense industry, that a dearth of engineering talent poses a threat to U.S. industrial competitiveness and national security.

Industry officials want to avoid letting the STEM debate become, like climate change, a reality that gets challenged by deniers.

Defense executives were surprised to see a study published in April by the Economic Policy Institute that concluded there is no shortage of STEM workers in the United States. “Contrary to many industry claims," the study said, "U.S. colleges and universities provide an ample supply of highly qualified STEM graduates."

The EPI study sought to counter high-tech industry lobbying efforts to increase the number of foreign guest workers that are allowed into the United States on the premise that there are not enough qualified U.S. workers. According to EPI, “Our examination shows that the STEM shortage in the United States is largely overblown.”

These findings, which were widely reported by news media, muddy the waters for defense and aerospace firms that claim they have thousands of unfilled jobs because they cannot find qualified engineers. Industry CEOs also worry that a wave of baby boomer retirements in the coming years will dig a deeper hole.

The challenge for aerospace and defense companies is to not let broad generalizations obscure the facts, said Brian Fitzgerald, CEO of the Business Higher Education Forum, an organization of Fortune 500 CEOs and research university presidents.

“Data can be misinterpreted,” he said. A case in a point is a study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, which also cast doubts on the STEM shortage. It concluded that nearly half of the nation's STEM graduates don't go into STEM jobs. “The diversion of native-born STEM talent into non-STEM educational and career pathways will continue and likely accelerate in the future,” the Georgetown study said.

That trend should alarm defense industry because it means that, even if there is an ample supply of U.S.-born STEM graduates, many will choose to work in commercial, non-defense disciplines, said Fitzgerald.  “Many STEM engineers go to Wall Street,” said Fitzgerald. “It's a reflection of the value that the economy places on quantitative and analytical skills.”

He said defense companies should stop debating this issue and do something about it.

Many top U.S. defense contractors are taking action and becoming deeply invested in the STEM cause. They are pouring millions of dollars into education and training programs to help secure a skilled U.S.-born workforce. They fear that, increasingly, a majority of STEM graduates from U.S. universities are not American citizens and therefore are ineligible to work on sensitive military programs.

Executives point out that the United States has fallen way behind the power curve in STEM education, compared to other industrialized nations. The end of the Cold War and a dramatic decline in the Pentagon’s clout as a technology mover and shaker also play against defense industry recruiting, executive said. 

The defense business just isn't interesting enough for up-and-coming engineers, executives acknowledge. “Graduates have decided that aerospace and defense isn’t as sexy as it used to be,” said Peter Nicholas Lengyel, president and CEO of Safran USA, a subsidiary of France's aerospace giant Safran Group.

In an interview, Lengyel said the company is not experiencing an engineer shortage, partly because of its internal programs that identify engineers with superior skills and promote them into senior positions. Safran does, however, have many unfilled jobs in high-tech manufacturing, he said.

In the defense sector, leaders have to counter the perception that the work involves dull, dirty factory jobs, said Linda P. Hudson, president and CEO of BAE Systems,

“When the general public hears the words ‘industrial base,’ they typically think of steel and grease,” Hudson said in a speech last week at the Atlantic Council.

“Young engineers, mathematicians, programmers, and cyber specialists rarely graduate today anxious to work in national security,” she said. “They have exciting choices: Google, Amazon, Instagram, Microsoft, McAfee, to name a few.”

Tens of thousands of skilled workers around the globe manufacture computer chips, she said. “But how about making radiation hardened microprocessors like our electronics business produced for NASA to power the Rover’s trip to Mars? Much of this talent is now being produced outside the United States,” she said. “But unlike Silicon Valley who can hire immigrant technology talent with an H1B visa, I need U.S. citizens to work on classified programs.”

Science, technology, engineering and math graduates, she said, “are the lifeblood of our industry. Unfortunately, we’re letting that blood spill away, and the supply is increasingly limited.”

In the race for top talent, Hudson said, “our industry is running with not just an arm tied behind its back, but a leg or two trussed up as well. … If we’re forced to forgo international talent, then we damned well better be doing something to produce that talent domestically.”

Hudson recognized that “our culture as an industry simply does not appeal to the incoming generation of workers. … We scare them away with our hierarchies, with our cubicles, with our gray walls and our red tape.”

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Re: Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth

How can there be a "shortage" if every opening has 200-2000 applicants?  Only unrealistic job requirements make for a shortage of "qualified" applicants.  Take a close look at some of the job adds.  The job requirements have become shopping lists of what used to be "nice to have" additions, that have now all of a sudden become "minimum entry" requirements.  The companies are refusing to grow their own talent.  They lay off talent at the drop of a hat, and then expect the government of all places to fund maintenance of their "capabilities" until work orders picks up.  The taxpayer should not trust any company or industry trade organization figures about manpower education shortages.  Only people who haven't been in the business long enough to know better, respect their claims.
Dennis Boulais at 11/28/2013 9:58 PM

Re: Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth

The aerospace/defense industry has become a poor choice for engineers.  I am one of the recently retired baby boomer engineers, and I became frustrated with the ever increasing emphasis on administrative tasks, i.e. "value added" tracking mandated by management with no engineering background.  The actual engineering tasks have become secondary.  I found myself discouraging my children from entering the engineering fields.

Earlier in my career, my management rose through the engineering ranks, and learned management skills required to carry out their new responsibilities, but they were first and foremost technical people.  Late in my career, I had to deal with management who had no idea of what I did, and simply believed in management marked by arrogance, ignorance, and intimidation.
Jim at 11/30/2013 9:40 AM

Re: Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth

New STEM grads don't stay away from aerospace and defense because its not interesting, or not sexy enough.  They stay away because the pay is below-market, and the company cultures are awful.  Read the reviews online from STEM grads who were hired into Big Defense in the last several years.  They all complain about the same things: Worthless management, no chance to grow, and when layoffs come, the managers are kept while the STEM grads doing the day-to-day heavy lifting are laid off.
Defense Employee at 11/30/2013 12:58 PM

Re: Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth

When Defense companies, like high-tech companies, actually start looking inward, the United States population has a chance at becoming a world-class workforce again. What's often forgotten is that as long as politicians cater to the whims of companies who want the cheap and easy solutions provided by lax immigration policy, no one needs to promote the US education system, the US job market, the US work force--it's selling out the future of the country.
StuartMill at 11/30/2013 10:21 PM

Re: Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth

There is no shortage of STEM graduates.  There have been several studies over the past decade from major universities and engineering professional organizations debunking that myth.  There are more STEM graduates than there are STEM jobs.

Companies and their lobbyists use this STEM shortage myth to get more HB1visas so they can hire cheaper foreign workers and offer less benefits.

Second, anyone that takes a catagory as large and broad as STEM and says that there is a shortage in that field has no idea what they are talking about.  I graduated in a STEM field of Civil Engineering yet half of my graudating class didn't have a job after they graduated and of the half that did field a job in Civil Engineering, half of those are now out of the field of Civil Engineering after 5 years.  The STEM career field is poorly defined in most studies since it can encompass IT, RN, Civil Engineer, Biologist, etc. 

How many major aerospace companies are there in the U.S.?  Boeing? Lockheed?  That's about it.  There are only a handful of aerospace companies compared to 30 years ago when the baby boomers were getting into the field.  So the retirement of Baby Boomers will have little effect on the demand for STEM graduates.  That and technology has increased the productivity of engineers.  Just look at Civil Engineering.  Back when the Baby Boomers, there were drafting by hand using pencil and scales and doing calculations by slide rule and primative calculators.  So it took months to draft anything and a room full of civil engineers doing calculations.  Now one, civil engineer using spreadsheets and AutoCAD can do in one week what it took baby boomers weeks to do. So you don't have to replace retiring baby boomers one to one in STEM fields.

Lastly, the government doesn't pay engineers what they are worth and don't mentor talent.  You have engineers starting out in the $30k to $40k range while in the private industry you get $10k to $20k more than that and much more after you get your P.E.  That and you are treated like professionals in the private industry while in the Federal government you have Office Assistants without college degrees that have been in the Federal government for decades treating you like crap and always trying to get you in trouble.  You see people getting hired into engineer positions in the Federal government that don't have engineering degrees because they are related to someone that have been in the Federal government for decades.
CE at 12/2/2013 9:25 AM

Re: Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth

"In the defense sector, leaders have to counter the perception that the work involves dull, dirty factory jobs", said Linda P. Hudson, president and CEO of BAE Systems at a speech at the Atlantic Council. What is that? A "let's drink our own bathwater" convention?
Most engineers and scientists I work with are passionate about their work and no engineer whom I work with thinks aerospace is dull. Aerospace sadly, is FULL of VPs who just have no clue why scientists quit, and this MBA culture of ignoring this has resulted in many loosing businesses.
DHambley at 12/3/2013 2:15 PM

Re: Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth

The title of this blog posting is completely misleading.  A more correct title would be; "Highly Compensated Defense Executives With Hidden Agenda to Depress Labor Costs: Shortage of Engineers Willing to Work for Low Pay, Soul Crushing Bureaucracies, and No Job Security Is Not a Myth."

I think if the premise of the piece were more honest and accurate, the subsequent statements would form a more coherent position that could be recognized and supported by both management AND labor...
Career Engineer at 12/4/2013 4:09 PM

Re: Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth

The Defense Industry now costs taxpayers $1 TRILLION per year, and you want more.  Well the fact is that that is not happening.  The Defense Industry is going to have some serious budget cuts in all sectors.  If you are in one of the sectors that expands, you can simply locate talent from the agencies that have layoffs or are simply shut down.  I have to admit that are some places where Defense Industry jobs are jobs where the employee simply does no work. However, there are some employees who will be laid off that actually have some skills. So find them!  You claim to have some intelligence.  Use it. Locate some workers in the soon to be laid off Defense Industry. at 12/24/2013 6:16 AM

Re: Defense Executives: Shortage of Engineers Is Not a Myth

wow im so glad that i found this thread, i was thinking of going into aerospace engineering but ive changed my mind. i love airplanes and very good with math.
john cuty at 2/19/2014 7:47 AM

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