Fewer Engineers Means Fewer Weapons Designs

Reductions in university enrollments increasing, but number of qualified engineers still in short supply.

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By Ed Sperling

Uncle Sam wants you—but not on the battlefield.

The diminished pool of qualified engineering and science graduates is having a major impact on the defense market. There simply are too few trained engineers to design complex systems for the military at the rate they’re needed, creating a huge hole in a system that has been humming along for the better part of a century. And with many existing engineers retiring or retired, the need will only grow.

The problem started in the early 1990s with acquisition reform, which began tackling problems of custom-made tools. Stories about hammers and toilet seats costing hundreds of dollars made headlines across the country, and Congress reacted by moving to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) parts. In the name of efficiency, not to mention the defense cuts of the Clinton administration, the government turned what was once an attractive career option for engineering and science graduates into an extremely unattractive option.

While it has been relatively easy for a company to get on the list of accepted suppliers—they have to meet the triple standards of reliable, safe and secure, with an established production process—the number of engineers who actually work for these companies has been in sharp decline. And so far, they haven’t returned.

“Science, technology and the underlying math and physics has been waning in schools,” said Paul Shebalin, retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and currently the director of the Wayne E. Meyer Institute of Systems Engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “That’s especially true for those individuals who are eligible for DoD (Department of Defense) clearance.”

Enrollment at engineering schools dropped precipitously in the beginning of the decade, but it appears to be on the rise. In fact, enrollment of full-time foreign graduate students on temporary visas in science and engineering grew 16 percent in 2006, compared with only 4 percent in 2005, according to the National Science Foundation. Those numbers dropped 19 percent after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Looked at differently, the number of U.S students in those programs is growing, as well. The percentage of U.S. students in science and engineering increased to 71% of the total students enrolled in 2005, up from 69% in 2003. The good news is that it’s far easier for U.S. citizens to get DoD clearance for sensitive defense projects. But what percentage push further into graduate education and then into complex system-level design remains to be seen.

“The typical curriculum is that in undergraduate you have electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science, and then you try to integrate all of that at the end. In graduate school, it’s a systems approach—systems process, engineering economics and process management,” Shebalin said. “What we need are people who can integrate thermal with electronics, structures, weight and propulsion. In the systems engineering process, you have to come up with a system specification that includes functional and non-functional requirements.”

He noted that the Secretary of the Navy already has issued a mandate to boost the numbers of engineers and scientists, as well as the quality of their training. “We’ve seen the problems of systems engineering done badly,” he said.