The Innovation State of the Union

Pamela Menges, Phd CEO of Aerospace Research Systems, Inc.

Pamela Menges, Phd
CEO of Aerospace Research Systems, Inc.

President Obama made mention in his state of the union address that he wishes to expand the National Netowrk for Manufacturing Innovation concept. I wholly applaud the idea, AND, there might be a more fundamental challenge that needs addressed first. I’ve made the acquaintance of a thought leader with her finger on the pulse of where the nation sits in terms of technological readiness to innovate. Her name is Pamela Menges, and she’s President of a high-tech start up in Cincinnati. She’s also a professor at the University of Cincinnati in their Engineering department.

Steve Jobs once challenged Obama to find him 30,000 engineers so he could build a plant in California. That challenge remains a big one, and again, wouldn’t it be nice if the President took it seriously. The post below is from Pamela Menges who gives her informed perspective on the innovation readiness of the USA, and more specifically, the workforce. Thanks Pamela.

Where is the innovation workforce? – Dr. Pamela A. Menges 2 Feb 2013

Some five years into an early stage technology company, I found myself, an experienced technology manager, as a CEO in search of competent manufacturing.

The complexity and issues that created my interest in the forensics of the loss of what most would consider to be core competencies for any first world country, came after great cost and the final realization I was back in the manufacturing business whether I liked it or not. And after all it was in my background. It wasn’t like we were packaging software we were producing the highest performing vertical axis wind turbine. But it wasn’t an Atlas rocket either.

The economic upheaval of the 21st century gave a boost to the requirement for technological competitiveness. Unfortunately the US government has muddied the waters by not implementing real industrial and technology policies. Now most recently they have embarked on billion-dollar program to build a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. How will it work without the infrastructures, policies and above all the workforce?

Simply in 1970 the percentage of engineering graduates from US Universities was 5%. In 2010 it was 4%.(1) In recent surveys by the professional engineering societies the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), over fifty percent of professional engineering members were over 50.(2)

According to the US Bureau of Labor the current requirement for the increase in engineering employment from 2010 to 2020 is 11% with aerospace engineering at 5%. If it were not for our economic mess, we would be in a full-up engineering crisis.

The most scientifically intense engineering fields are aerospace, chemical, and electrical engineering. These disciplines are key to new technologies in the most competitive areas of the economy. As a degreed physicist and aerospace engineer, I have membership beyond engineering societies. What I have seen is the American Physical Society (APS) does a much better job at development. APS has proactive program on diversity which has a positive impact
on recruiting from less represented groups.

The problem here is the “gender issue” in engineering makes the professional society’s respective sphincters slam shut.

A statement in a recent IEEE Spectrum article was short and not very sweet; “Women total about 10 percent of respondents, a number that has remained relatively stable among IEEE members over the years.”

Well as long as it is stable.

The forward to the female demographic included the statement that; “Almost half of the survey respondents are 50 or older, and 36 percent are 35 to 49.” These are of course primarily male. So maybe an increase in professional woman engineers would be a good idea.

To be fair to IEEE not everyone is doing as well. The raw data at the University of Cincinnati Aerospace Engineering Department where I lecture indicates that the matriculation of aerospace undergraduates has been maintained at 7% for female students. However, they graduate at a higher proportion, than their male counterparts. It may be they are betterprepared with a higher level of entry competence than young men, but that may just my perception.

Engineers are aging. Our numbers are dropping and homegrown engineers are important due to security and the requirements of most government funding.

New skills and diversity of knowledge could reinvigorate the related industries. New approaches to manufacturing and production technologies can shore up the biggest American short coming; translating new technology to manufactured products.

Not seriously discussing and improving the cultural environment for women means that the largest population group in the United States, will not be increasing in numbers in the engineering. We have only so many opportunities to increase the numbers of homegrown engineers in the few years we have left. By 2020 nearly half of the engineers 50 older will be retired and there will be a true innovation crisis.

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