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RVB's Market Musings

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Re: Social Engineering

Robert Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT) writes in today's Wall St. Journal's opinion column
Department of Education data suggests U.S. colleges and universities are only producing about 62,000 engineering BAs a year -- fewer than the visual and performing arts graduates -- and that figure hasn't grown in a decade.

The looming tech talent shortfall will have an impact far beyond any single firm or sector. Science and engineering aren't just crucial for national security; they're critical for economic growth. High-tech industries drive development, boosting productivity and generating good jobs. If the U.S. intends to remain the world's technological leader, we have to act today, inspiring more young people to thrive in advanced-tech careers. It's achievable, as long as government, the private sector, schools and communities work together.

Most people have heard arguments like this before - the US will collapse if we don't start creating more scientists.

As one of those former 62k BA's per year (BS Electrical Engineering, 2000, thank you very much) - I'm torn when I hear people predict such a crisis. Our economic system promotes those who have science degrees to set up shop here in the US versus at home. How many foreign-born scientists and engineers are working for US companies on home soil? In this way, we stay ahead, even if we aren't producing the brains.

But that doesn't seem sustainable forever and that's why so many make such comments. There seems to be a certain truism here.

The fact of the matter is that being an engineer or a scientist in the US isn't prestigious. In fact, it's actually quite the opposite. It's nerdy. Geeky. Mr. Stevens acknowledges this fact and I believe this is the heart of what he is trying to say. We do need to change this image.

But here's where I think Robert's letter goes awry. Do you really think that the government can inspire children to do anything? With governments' big highlights in recent years being Monica-gate, the Bush is a moron campaigns, and forever wasting brain space in minds world-wide with "The Hanging Chad" - most youth will certainly know little about the good things that the government may have accomplished. Schools can certainly help. But a strong paradox which exists in our schools is that most teachers became teachers explicitly because they did not want to be scientists.

The Private Sector certainly has the most to gain from encouraging youth to enter the sciences. But with a constant focus on productivity and meeting Wall St. expectations, the amount required to spend on such programs would be the first thing for any CFO to hack at with the proverbial budget ax. You want to spend 150k on a local high-school outreach program to teach kids to build a control system? How much will that cost nationwide? No way we can hit EPS. Damn. Scratch that. I'll bet even Lockheed's management and Shareholders would agree.

So, Robert, I challenge you to put your money where your mouth is. If your company's future depends on you doing so, let's see you do something about it. But, remember, Robert that your company builds bombs, something not everyone feels inclined to participate in.

While you're at it, round up your Fortune 500 CEO friends and convince them that the long term view needs scientists. Be an example. Pay your engineers. Provide a strong work-life balance. Better yet, make your scientists and engineers really feel important. I turned down TWO jobs at your very own Lockheed Martin myself. It wasn't worth it.

It won't be easy. Many of the engineers I interacted with in my day-to-day weren't happy with their fields. There is nothing more defeating to a profession when those in it are not adamant proponents. High school kids aren't completely stupid, you know, and they can see that they can make more money, feel more proud, and have more fun with a degree in Economics or Business instead. I've been there. And I'm leaving it. The Wall St. rigor stomps out most of the fun - indeed I meet many scientists and engineers who love science but found that practicing it in Corporate America was incredibly disappointing. I'm part of the problem (albeit I did almost head off to a "super-secret" (ha ha) government agency to use my skills in the interest of national defense).

I'm with you, Robert, that this needs to happen. So here's an idea. Maybe the best bang for your buck is on TV. We're already rotting our minds watching TV - but it is not all terrible. Without digging in, I would place a decent sized bet that applicants to Forensic Science / Criminology programs are on the rise because of CBS' crime show phenom, CSI. My generation grew up with MacGyver and Quantum Leap. How about a good spy show - a "James Bond" meets "MacGyver" type of show where the "geek" gets the girl? Perhaps put Discovery Channel's Mythbusters in Prime Time on a major network, where it might do well. Maybe my former CEO, Mr. Immelt who also needs engineers and owns one of those bigwig network channels could pull this off. There aren't any great role-model scientists! Bill Nye the Science Guy? Puhlease! What needs to happen is some momentum, and this might be a beginning. Once it becomes "cool" and people love working in the field, it will begin to take care of itself.

5 Comments:

At April 21, 2006 9:09 AM, Anonymous An LM employee said...

The show would be cancelled in less than a month because it failed to meet the numbers that drive the television and entertaintment idustry. Although the idea of a tv show where the geek gets the girl is great, science shows traditionally don't do well on prime time. This needs to change and the only way to do it is for the high technology companies to spend lmoney advertising on prime time. Use the money wisely by only advertising on show and network that believe in your vision. remember the original star trek show? a lot of the technology shown on the series are now commonplace today. But the biggest problem today is young people watching all the high technology jobs being exported offshore and engineers and scientist being imported to this country at very low pay. these people understand that when they return to their country of origin, they will be able to open up shop and negotiate with american executives to export those jobs overseas. My last call to DELL was rerouted to India. By the way, I learned at a very young age that cheap is not always good. You want to do a little social engineering? start with the business schools, teach a little patriotism and the concept that globalism also include the United States.

 
At April 21, 2006 9:50 AM, Blogger rvb1977 said...

Negativity towards my show idea already? We're in the brainstorming phase - not the naysaying phase. I didn't say it would be easy...but it is possible.

:-)

I managed an outsourcing project for my former employer, so I am well aware of the difficulties. You are right, cheap is not always good. What was most frustrating for me was that the people in India who we hired were far, far, far overqualified for what they did. As time goes by businesses will better understand what can and cannot be outsourced. There is certainly a limit.

This is why I agree with your CEO in that something needs to be done. But, it is easy to complain - it is rare to see a real, tangible suggestion. What's more, and you know more because of your inside track at LM, but is he putting his money where his mouth is?

As for B-Schools, "patriotism" might not be the most appropriate topic, given that about 1/3 of students are from other countries. We need to work together. Patriotism comes from other influences, and at the point wherein students enroll in B-School, it's too late. But you are right on the globalism comment.

 
At April 25, 2006 8:16 AM, Anonymous jritzema said...

The problem I really see with getting more engineers is not having a large enough educated group in the US that could be engineers if they wanted to be. The public education system is failing this country and the kids that go through, particularly in math and sciences but also in reading and writing. Many kids are destined to doing unintellegent work because the system is broken and those that do manage to get out of the system half way intellegent have opportunities they see as better than engineers. Increase the number of kids with the skills to be knowledge workers and you will have more engineers too (a rising tide lifts all boats).

 
At April 25, 2006 8:22 AM, Blogger rvb1977 said...

Love the stock market reference.

You're right, but like I mentioned, teachers are so because they didn't want to be engineers. It's an odd paradox...How do we make it happen?

 
At April 25, 2006 2:11 PM, Blogger NO DooDahs said...

The science major says "what IS that?"

The engineering major says "HOW does that work?"

The economics major says "I wonder how much I can CHARGE for that?"

and ...

The liberal arts majors says "Do you want FRIES with that?"

 

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