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A Critical Shortage


We face an imperative to tap the talent of the “new majority”

Rensselaer graduates well know that science and technology are the foundation of the health, the safety and security, and the prosperity of Western nations, and of emerging nations throughout the world. The 20th century brought us marvelous innovations and achievements — from the Internet to a Mars landing to cures for formerly deadly diseases — and we have come to expect even more in the 21st century. Yet, where will the scientists, engineers, and technology experts come from who will bring about a new golden age of discovery?

There is great concern, especially in the United States, that the next generation is not ready for the challenge. In fact, a confluence of a number of factors — a “perfect storm” of conditions — could have an adverse effect on scientific and technological achievement in the coming years. As more and more scientists reach retirement age, there are not the necessary numbers of highly trained young people ready to take their places. By now, many of you are familiar with the estimate that, over the next five years, 25 percent of NASA engineers will be eligible for retirement — a troubling fact for an evolving space program. The same conditions are pervasive throughout government, business, and industry.

At the same time, fewer students are choosing to study science. Engineering enrollments are flat — with real-life consequences. Three months before last summer’s historic blackout that affected 50 million people in the United States and Canada, a Senate study found that the country faces a critical shortage of power engineers. The study concluded that the country’s largest utility companies do not have the trained engineers who can build the needed reserve capacity into the power grid.

Changes in immigration law have posed additional challenges to science, engineering, and technology education institutions and workplaces. For years, the government and corporate need for specialized science and engineering skills has been filled, when needed, by foreign nationals. But since Sept. 11, visa applications have declined dramatically and many foreign scientists are finding increased study and work opportunities in their home countries.

As a result, we face an imperative for the future of science, engineering, and technology: to identify, nurture, and support the next generation — especially in pre-K through grade 12 — if we are to achieve the breakthroughs necessary to sustain and advance our way of life, and to extend that to as many people in the world as possible.

Fortunately, the United States already has a talent pool to meet this challenge. There is a new — and growing — group of Americans comprising women, minorities, and the disabled, who form a “new majority.” Although they compose nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population, they have been underrepresented in the sciences, engineering, mathematics, and technologies. For example, while women made up 46 percent of the U.S. workforce in the mid- 1990s, they held only 12 percent of the private sector science and engineering jobs. It is time we tapped their talent, and the potential of so many others.

There are many higher education programs that have proved to be successful in this regard. In February, a comprehensive report on these programs was released by BEST (Building Engineering and Science Talent), which was formed under the aegis of the Council of Competitiveness with support from the National Science Foundation. The report, A Bridge for All, details exemplary programs that can be used as models for institutions across the country. It also calls for a national commitment to assure that we have the national science and engineering capacity to carry us through this century. Indeed, we need a national policy initiative to support these and other programs, as we seek even more innovative solutions to quell the storm.

Rensselaer also has taken on this challenge, with programs such as GEAR UP, which helps to prepare low-income students for college through after-school, weekend, and summer learning programs at the Institute. The Bridge summer program brings minority students to the campus for a four-credit introduction to engineering course that gives them a head start on their studies. Rensselaer also has programs targeted to middle school students, teachers, and parents, as these are crucial years in a child’s education. This summer, the Institute will pilot a new six-week residential program, Rensselaer Presidential Scholars, geared toward women and minority students. Up to 30 seniors from around the country will take a credit-bearing course in science or engineering with a research component in biotechnology, information technology, engineering, or another science.

While these and similar programs are making headway, more must be done. It is in the national interest — and the interest of better lives for people around the world — that we engage the bright young minds of all our young people to show them the possibilities of education and careers in science and engineering. A university is about the future, and we owe it to our collective future to invest today in the next generation.

For more information on A Bridge for All, visit www.

Rensselaer Magazine: Spring 2004
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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

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