Where are the engineers?

“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.”

This quote by Dennis Gabor, electrical engineer and recipient of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics, captures the progressive spirit of engineeringdom throughout history from Archimedes to Elijah McCoy, Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, Jean Sammet, Judith Resnik, Frances Allen and countless others. This week is Engineers Week, a celebration of their collective everything-is-figureoutable pursuit.

The underlying theme is far less inspiring. Employers can’t find enough engineers. The technology industry, among others, is facing a major shortage of the talent it needs to drive innovation and deliver on potential. This deficit is called the “skills gap.”

The burden of this shortfall weighs heavily on the bleeding edge. Research by the IBM Center for Applied Insights reveals a clear skills gap in emerging technology, specifically the trends covered on this blog. Our dashboard illustrates what we found in analytics, cloud, mobile and social.

The sum of this data tells a familiar story. The tech industry is a pageant of continuous and rapid change. The requisite skills needed to address its challenges are impossible to predict, and employers need to solve problems that were only just invented.

Gregg Fleisher calls it a crisis. Fleisher is chief academic officer of the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), a U.S. group dedicated to creating a society more cultured in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). “Everyone wants more engineers,” Fleisher told me. “That’s the ultimate goal—highly qualified engineers. It’s the ideal endgame. But we also need to create a more STEM literate society.”

The crusade for literacy is a compelling one with enormous implications. Take cyber security, for example. Those paying attention are anxious about our ability to keep information safe and deter kinetic cyber attacks that compromise Internet of Things devices like connected cars, drones, medical devices and the industrial control systems of critical infrastructure (e.g., power grids, nuclear plants, air traffic control). The weight of issues like these demands an abundance of the brightest minds in math and science.

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Controversy

There are no straight lines across this divide. An easy solution would require, among other things, agreement on whether or not there is actually a problem. This point is highly debated. Manpower Group publishes an annual report based on survey responses from more than 41,000 hiring managers in 42 countries. The key finding in the 2015 report is 38 percent of employers are having difficulty filling jobs, a 2 percent increase from the previous year.

However, in a New York Times op-ed, columnist Paul Krugman called the skills gap “a prime example of a zombie idea.” The New York Times editorial board likewise played down the notion as “mostly a corporate fiction, based in part on self-interest and a misreading of government data.”

Is the skills gap real? It depends on whom you ask, but both sides can hopefully agree producing more engineers is a worthwhile goal.

If you can even call them that. Designer Ian Bogust wrote an essay in The Atlantic, “Programmers: Stop Calling Yourselves Engineers.” It’s a scolding to coders who correlate their work to the designing and building of physical infrastructure. The piece prompted a response by WIRED engineer Kathleen Vignos, “Programmers, Let’s Earn the Right to be Called Engineers.” Both are thought provoking reads with many important subplots to this story.

So how should we think about engineering in the digital age? It’s an open philosophical debate best left to practitioners. For the sake of our conversation, Vignos offers a nice baseline: Engineers design, build or solve problems.

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Takeaways

Wayne Gretsky famously said he skates to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. This is useful business advice, and pierces the heart of the issue. But it’s hard to hit a moving target, and this puck is getting slap-shot all over the rink. Our blog has published advice for business leaders on how to address the skills gap, including developing talent from within, nurturing skills for brand new roles and relying more on partnerships.

None of this devalues work done apart from STEM. In fact, LinkedIn data shows the tech industry is hiring more liberal arts majors than ever before. A recent Forbes cover story went so far as to proclaim, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket.”

It’s good news for me. I have three blue-eyed boys, and their father is no engineer. But Engineers Week is no less relevant. As a parent, I am a huge part of Fleisher’s target audience and indeed the entire STEM advocacy machine that includes NMSI and many other great organizations. Like P-Tech, an IBM-backed program to prepare students for technology careers that WIRED wrote, “could fix education—and tech’s diversity gap.”

But you can’t teach what you don’t know. So I asked Fleisher for advice on introducing my children to STEM. “There are lots of things you can do to get them interested,” he told me. “You can take them to after-school enrichment programs, take them to science museums, question them at the dinner table, use candy to teach them math. Make the conversation about things they enjoy.”

Do I see in those blue eyes the early signs of brilliant engineers? Yes. But I also see great artists, teachers or servicemen. It’s not my place to choose their fate, but it is my job to nurture their minds. I should help them develop an engineer’s attention to detail and skills for problem solving, even if they don’t go on to build things or write code.

Children are remarkably susceptible to the disposition of adults around them. I see this every day and am reminded of how heavily my attitude impacts their own. Of everything Fleisher told me, the thing that stood out most is to demonstrate an excitement and appreciation for STEM in a way that connects with their interests.

I hope to make this my contribution to STEM literacy on Engineers Week.

 

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