Industry, Academia, Government Grapple With Dwindling STEM Workforce

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Students participate in the CyberPatriot national competition

Just outside the nation’s capital on March 15, a furious war was waged against invisible, online foes.

But the U.S. cyber troops toiling away at dozens of computer banks were not in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or even the military. In fact, none of them had graduated high school.

Fortunately for the students — who were participating in a program that grooms youth for science-related careers — the threat was simulated.

The program, called CyberPatriot, is one of dozens of new initiatives to stop the brain drain that officials worry has taken root in U.S. engineering and science fields. 

Competing made an impression on Colin O’Brien, a 17-year-old from Corpus Christi, Texas, who had never considered a cyber-related career before engaging in the fictional war.

“This has really kind of introduced me to … the amount of stuff you can do with settings on a computer, and how you can secure it against bad guys,” said O’Brien at CyberPatriot’s national competition in National Harbor, Md.

O’Brien is one example of a student taking part in the numerous efforts to teach and excite young people about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM.

While unemployment rates across the nation remain high, many STEM jobs remain vacant, with more positions expected to open as older workers retire in the coming years.

The problems associated with a weak STEM applicant pool can threaten national security, some experts have said. In response, industry, academia and the government have funneled millions of dollars into STEM-education initiatives. But the numbers aren’t budging.

“Across the country, the number of young students interested in STEM is decreasing. This is causing a growing shortage of science-based talent in our workplaces and universities, and it represents a serious problem for our nation,” Wes Bush, CEO and president of Northrop Grumman Corp. told National Defense in an email.

Science-based expertise is essential to the United States’ economy and society, Bush said. Without a substantial growth in these fields, the country will be unable to sustain its leadership across the globe, he said.

In 2012, Northrop Grumman, along with its charitable arm, the Northrop Grumman Foundation, gave approximately $22.8 million to STEM-related groups, he said.

Various propositions have been thrown out to stop the talent hemorrhaging, including engaging potential STEM employees while they are young.

In order to land a high-skilled manufacturing job after high school, students must be engaged in STEM by the fifth grade, said Ed Swallow, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s Information Systems division.

Fifth grade is “critical” because that is when students and parents begin considering various available educational paths, said Swallow, who is the chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association’s STEM Workforce Division.

If parents do not get their students on a pathway to completing algebra in eighth grade, then it will be difficult to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field within four years, Swallow said.

More programs to engage elementary and middle school students are needed, he said, pointing to DoD STARBASE as one example.

“STARBASE was actually started specifically to get fifth graders excited about science and math. That dates back into the 90s, because the DoD saw a critical need for fifth graders to get more science and math,” Swallow said.

The Defense Department program which engages fifth graders in underrepresented areas, started in 1991 in Detroit, Mich., and has since been giving students a “hands-on, minds-on” knowledge of STEM, according to its website.

At CyberPatriot — a program established by the Air Force Association and sponsored by Northrop Grumman, among other companies — contest organizers aim to steer students toward careers in cyber.

“It’s … [a] way to lure them into STEM because what we have learned is it is not just a matter of generating more curriculum material, [it’s] how do you excite them? How do you motivate them? How do you draw them in,” said Bernie Skoch, commissioner of CyberPatriot.

A competition does all those things, he said.

CyberPatriot started in 2009 in Florida with eight teams. The 2013 event boasted 1,226 teams from all 50 states, Canada and Department of Defense Dependent Schools in Europe and Asia, Skoch said.

Skoch considers the program a success.

“We have students who come through our program that had never expressed an interest in cybersecurity, but they find themselves now pursuing education in a technical field. We have students through our program that are offered internships from our sponsors,” said Skoch. “We see strong evidence that we are making a difference.”

Besides motivating students, the program also benefits many disenfranchised participants, said Carey Peck, the director of CyberPatriot at the Los Angeles Unified School District System, where many schools are classified as Title 1. Schools in this classification have significant populations of low-income students and receive supplemental federal funds to assist in improving the educational environment.

Peck helps run a program called “Beyond the Bell.” The initiative is meant to engage students before and after school to promote learning.

CyberPatriot is one option that students can participate in through Beyond the Bell, he said.

“It engages a lot of students that we wouldn’t catch with other activities. It really immerses them in an activity which is productive [not only] in terms of their academic learning but also their career aspects,” said Peck. “The ladder that they get just by this program and the contacts they make to a career, to college, to a bigger world, all that … is a way out.”

Peck said his district started this year’s season with 52 teams participating in CyberPatriot. Four made it into the national championships, where 28 teams participated.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vautrinot, who heads the service’s cyber division, attended the competition and said it is essential that students have a sound knowledge of the STEM fields.
“This is young people learning the foundations early so they can become the future of this nation tomorrow, next year and for the next decades,” said Vautrinot.

Air Force Cyber Command does not have enough workers, she said, which is why it is important that young people begin STEM studies early.

“This is foundational to the future of the nation,” Vautrinot said. “The future of that success is these young people understanding the foundations of science, technology and engineering, and being able to apply them.”

In March, Northrop Grumman announced that it would renew sponsorship of CyberPatriot for another three years with a $4.5 million grant.

But while CyberPatriot targets students at the high school level, reform is also needed at the collegiate level, said Brian Fitzgerald, CEO of Business High-Education Forum, a coalition of industry CEOs who support education reform.

Colleges are not doing enough to engage students pursuing STEM careers, Fitzgerald said. During their senior year of high school, only 17 percent of students who are interested in STEM careers and proficient in math go on to study such a field in college. Of those, 50 percent switch to a non-STEM major by their junior year, Fitzgerald said.

One reason for these numbers is colleges approach STEM fields more academically, rather than practically, often leading students to drop the major, Fitzgerald said. Universities must offer more hands-on applications of STEM studies if they want to keep students enrolled, he said.

Swallow said that universities often place difficult classes intentionally in strategic levels of education, hoping to weed students out of the program because many universities’ facilities cannot handle large numbers of STEM students.

“They’re actually trying to size the class that’s going to the upper class. It’s a conscious decision on their part to get down to just the people that are the top in that field,” said Swallow.

What is needed is not more researchers, but more students who can create things, Swallow said.

The University of Maryland system is not only drawing students into its program, but also giving them real-world experience.

BHEF, Northrop Grumman and University of Maryland, College Park, will launch the Advanced Cybersecurity Experiences for Students (ACES) program in the fall. ACES is meant to create a living-learning environment, where participating students gain practical and applicable knowledge of STEM careers through working in cyber. The program will also be brought to some other Maryland universities.

“This is an opportunity to really build up the cyber capabilities of the University System of Maryland and open opportunities for students,” said Fitzgerald. “We think this is a model that can help address one of the most serious challenges that faces [STEM].”

Both Fitzgerald and Swallow emphasized the need for STEM education to take place at local levels.

“Every part of the country is different. The more we try to do one-size-fits-all, the worse that fits anyone,” said Swallow. “It’s all about national strategy [and] local action.”

Still, despite millions of dollars being put into STEM-education initiatives, the numbers aren’t where they should be, Fitzgerald said.

“We see that STEM education is decoupled from the innovation needs of industry in some fairly fundamental ways,” Fitzgerald said. “It suggests that the billions of dollars of investments … have not really made the kind of progress we may have hoped.”

While progress is being made slowly, Fitzgerald said, it is not keeping pace with the demands of the economy.

To make the situation more dire, Swallow said the United States will soon face a major problem: STEM professionals retiring in droves.

“This is not a matter of a crisis right at this moment. We can see it coming eight years, seven years down the road,” Swallow said.

Over the next decade, nearly 40 percent of workers in the aerospace and defense industries will retire, according to an Aviation Week & Space Technology study. As workers retire, industry, government and academia will lose knowledge, Swallow said.

“The biggest challenge will be in the knowledge gap. ... That’s the kind of brain drain that everybody worries about if we don’t have the next generation come in and work on the same kind of projects and learn from the people who did it before,” Swallow said.

Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp.

Topics: Cyber, Cybersecurity, Defense Department, Science and Engineering Technology, Research and Development

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