Apr 11, 2008

Increasing the supply of engineers and technicians

There's a big barrier to students who'd like to become engineers and it hampers the country's ability to keep up with the demand for engineers and technicians. It makes me think about a conversation I heard between my son and his cousin. Brian said he dropped out of school, where he was majoring in electrical engineering, when he couldn't make it through calculus. He now drives a route for Cintas and likes his job. (If you want to find a huge job market with high growth, it's for truck drivers. Think about it.) My son had also failed calculus. He didn't drop out of school, but did have a hiatus, where I forced him to retake calculus at the local community college and he managed to pass. He diverted his path to scientific writing, but parlayed a high-school program in Pascal programming into his current job in IT.

The nub of the problem was this -- Brian said, "Nobody told me how hard calculus was going to be." Chris said, "Nobody said how incredibly boring calculus was going to be." There you saw the loss of two potential manufacturing engineers.

Another thing nobody told Chris and Brian is that there are engineering-related career paths for those who can't get over the calculus hump. (Well, Chris's mom managed to interest him in the Michigan Tech program that combined the sci-tech writing with an associate's degree in mechanical technology.) Brian's dad was on a path from machine operator to plant manager, but they didn't really know about college alternatives to engineering.

I have a couple of proposals. One is that educators and employers think about how critical calculus is to working as an engineer. On the job, all the math is contained within CAD and CAM, finite element analysis and so on. Could there be an engineering degree that didn't require it? Business schools don't require it like they did when I was in school - I got an A in calculus, by the way, without having any mathematical vision of what was going on in the formulas. I was just good at memorizing.

I have a nagging problem with diluting the requirements, especially when I'm guessing that engineering schools in India and China are doing a better job teaching math. Or are they just washing out the same proportion of people from a much bigger population of beginning engineering candidates? Calculus trains the mind, if the student gets it, and the analytical thinking it requires must certainly sharpen one's ability to tackle problems. Could we do without it? At the same time, let's beef up our courses in statistics and teach its relevance to problem-solving. If taught right, applications of statistics like statistical process control are accessible to everyone from manager to machine operator.

If consensus is that no engineer can do without calculus, let's make a different change in the process that would increase production of engineering people. Employers should get across to schools that they should look at students who choose not to surmount the calculus obstacle and make certain that they are aware of other technical bachelors degree programs like technologist degrees and associates' technician degrees. Combining the technician AS and another BS like business or even writing as Michigan Tech does would go far to supply our manufacturers with smart non-mathematicians to strengthen our technical workforce. They don't present the alternative at that critical discouraging point in a student's education. Sorry Chris, but you wouldn't have made that choice if your mom didn't pore over the MTU course catalog and say, "Hm, that's interesting." You just thought it was your own idea. That's why engineering educators have to do the job. At the age of 18 or 19, the last person you want to listen to is your mom. Especially when she's forcing you to retake calculus as a condition of living at home in the summer.

And you manufacturing managers? Have you taken a good look at your employees who didn't go to college and identify those who'd be good candidates for technical associates' or bachelor's degrees? Are the only ones taking that path being forced to use all the hours they should be spending time with their families, or just refreshing their minds so they can help you solve problems, to pursue their educations? What about letting them take classes on company time? What about bringing the teachers to your plant to cut down on students' travel time to school? You could make this happen? Yes, I hear the old argument - "They'll take the education we've paid for and go somewhere else." Well, do you hesitate to hire a person whose current employer paid for their schooling? I don't think so.

The total system of giving talented people engineering and technical knowledge is not working. Dr. Deming probably said something about that. In fact, Dr. Myron Tribus, one of Deming's associates, did write a thought-provoking paper on the subject of education. But words floating through the air or living on paper or some server somewhere are not going to build the workforce we need. Employers and educators need to do a better job of informing students (and their parents) of the attractive opportunities for those who find calculus overwhelmingly difficult - or incredibly boring.


Anonymous said...

Eric will like this, I'll be sure to send it along.

My experience: I'm terrified of math but was willing to attempt it having a compassionate tutor handy. So last year, I finally went down to NMSU to see how I might go about pursuing a degree in industrial engineering with an emphasis in lean. The department head described lean as "comic book engineering". He also said that unequivocally, I'd have to get a degree in engineering first. So, my plans are on hold until and if I find a more amenable program elsewhere.

Unknown said...

Hi Kathleen,
What an idiot they have running the engineering dept at NMSU! You know not to listen to him, but what about all the other people he's miseducated. Oh well.

Unequivocally, you can get into lean by other paths than engineering, although it's a good one. When all is said and done, to understand culture you can go in as a sociologist. To really affect an organization, you can go in through business management.

But you're right to look further. Institutes of higher education tend to be about 10 years behind actual practice, and lean is starting to penetrate. Bob Emiliani is applying lean to higher education, but to operations, not curriculum. There's a lean curriculum group somewhere, but I haven't heard much about them for a long time.

On the other hand, you have University of Kentucky, which is turning out some really good engineers and future managers. They get some rigorous internships and get hired quickly.

Don't give up!

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