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Soft Underbelly of US R&D

December 2, 2011

It’s no secret I despise arguments in favor of STEM worker shortages. I think it’s a red herring that prevents us from tackling the real issue. Our weak funding and support for real R&D, training and manufacturing in this country. Not, unfortunately, as adorable as this cat’s soft underbelly (via creative commons).

There was another meeting between government and private industry where manufacturing and research leaders in the country could throw up their arms and ask what the hell do we do? on Monday of this week. The “good news” was the gains we’ve made in manufacturing these last couple years. I assume that’s more to do with recovering from the Great Recession’s lows though, not so much actual gains in the industry, combined with some advantages of a cheap dollar that we can’t realistically expect to last. The author of the Forbes article I linked to above attended a panel where someone complained that we don’t teach shop class anymore. Which, by the way, is not strictly true. But admittedly it’s probably less well funded and less well attended than it has been in the past. These complaints sort of reminded me of my fellow engineer Chris Gammell’s recent post what if engineering was treated more like sports. I think Chris properly points out the larger issue at stake here: we don’t respect and glamorize engineering and similar fields in the same way we do other skills.

So big deal we don’t teach shop anymore. Why would anyone want to take shop? Do former manufacturing centers like Detroit seem like they are really booming now? Does that seem like the career of the future? I mean for crying out loud, doesn’t everyone remember when this guy walks over to Tarkin and is like “maybe we should bail, boss?” See that technician he just walked away from in the background? And Tarkin’s all like “nawwwww”.

Technician was probably like “umm, so I found a weak point that maybe small fighters could exploit” “why didn’t we know about this before?” “well, you always told me to not worry about small fighters, plus I was trying to meet your budget and schedule so….” No respect.

One of the CEOs discussed how we needed more training and support from community colleges to meet manufactures’ needs. Duh. Oh, the community colleges we’re reducing funding on year after year? Another CEO discusses how her technicians require “advanced degrees”. I’ve heard of a post-doc, but if you are a technician with a PhD it sounds like they are trying to low ball you with a low title and a high standard for admission so that they don’t have to train you (our publicly funded universities can, or private and really expensive colleges) but they also don’t want to “pay for technicians” that cost more than H1Bs or outsourcing.

So that’s right America, the weaknesses are not that companies won’t train you to do your jobs. The problem is that your local high school which has been losing funding for decades and has to beg parents to bring in basic school supplies is also supposed to have a decent shop class program. Then your community colleges which have been raising tuition and have implemented enrollment caps to keep rising costs down are supposed to be training tomorrow’s workers. And then you as an individual are responsible for shelling out not only an average debt of $20k+ for their bachelor’s degree but now an average debt of $100k+ for a doctorate degree. Then after all this, they’re allowed to become a technician. But we can’t pay them more than we pay visa holders or overseas workers. At least the particular CEO they talked to is against outsourcing manufacturing, but she seems to be the exception.

Once you then read this piece on national labs whose work supports US companies the blind spot becomes even more glaringly obvious. The article discusses the Battelle Memorial Institute, an independent research lab, and notably a non-profit. The article slips over mentioning how the Department of Energy funds labs all over the country. These labs then allow companies like Boeing to recently cut back on their R&D by 30%. Why fund this stuff for yourself when you get the government to do it? And then get the government to fund education and training programs. But don’t fund the government, that kind of thing would just restrict business development. And don’t bother to train your workers when you can just bottom feed off of other country’s support of science and technology. As long as short term profits continue to be more important than US leadership in science and engineering don’t expect any different.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2011 2:58 pm

    Wow! This was a great read. Very well put. The last two paragraphs really say it all.

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