Companies & Industries

The Issue: A Clog in the Talent Pipeline


With enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs flagging and baby boomers retiring, Lockheed Martin last year launched a plan to help secure the future growth of its workforce

In 2006, Lockheed Martin (LMT), one of the largest recruiters of new engineering graduates in the U.S., was looking at a talent pool that was dangerously shallow. A 2005 report published by The National Academies indicated that while the percentage of students entering college who plan to major in science or engineering remained stable (at about 30%), undergraduate programs in those disciplines were reporting their lowest levels of retention. Projecting four years out and later, the Bethesda (Md.) aeronautics giant feared this problem would be exacerbated by the retirement of scores of aging baby boomers.

The National Academies pointed to the lack of quality math and science programs in K-12 education as a primary contributor to the looming decline in numbers of engineers and called on federal policymakers to implement new standards in education. Lockheed Martin—which employs more than 70,000 scientists, technologists, and engineers—decided to take action on its own. Two units in the company—workforce development and corporate social responsibility—sat down together and sketched out a plan to invest money and expertise in pre-engineering programs at middle schools and high schools around the country.

They interviewed teachers and administrators at prospective schools, who repeatedly stressed that any new coursework would have to be closely tied with the existing curriculum, as well as national math and science standards.

Joining with a Nonprofit Partner

The company also had to walk a fine line between being transparent about its goal—preparing young students for a potential career with Lockheed Martin—and not overtly recruiting in the classroom. "At the end of the day, we'd like these future engineers to work for Lockheed Martin," says Jim Knotts, Lockheed Martin's director of corporate social responsibility. "At the same time, we need to raise the tide that raises [all boats]."

A partnership with an independent nonprofit to develop a pre-engineering curriculum, Lockheed Martin decided, would both put the company in touch with the needs of educators and help avoid the perception that it had too direct an influence on lesson plans.

The track record of one such organization sounded good: Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that began implementing pre-engineering curricula for 12 New York high schools in 1997 had since expanded to more than 1,000 schools, and had worked with large corporations such as Northrop Grumman (NOC)—as well as local governments and foundations—to fund its teacher training and materials. "We get Corporate America involved to provide real-world context for the curriculum," says Neil Tebbano, Project Lead the Way's vice-president of operations.

Volunteers More Important Than Money

In conjunction with Project Lead the Way, Lockheed Martin began rolling out its "Engineers in the Classroom" initiative in fall, 2007, limiting the program to schools that had already joined with the nonprofit, or plan to, and those that are located in close proximity to one of Lockheed's major facilities. Having company offices and operations close to the schools would make field trips and class visits from employees simple, and would ostensibly make it easier to recruit the students when they graduate from college.

So far, Engineers in the Classroom has been launched in eight schools, with the goal of expanding to about 25 high schools and their feeder middle schools over the next few years.

Knotts won't share the total cost of the initiative, but says the recent launch in two schools in Palmdale County, Calif., totaled about $30,000. "The dollar figures are a lot less significant than the involvement of our volunteers," he says. "[Schools] can't just throw money and get an engineer."

Sowing the Seeds

Indeed, Lockheed Martin's own engineers have played a huge part in bringing real-world expertise to the partner schools. They provide class lectures on topics such as flight dynamics or structure design, and help to train teachers and volunteers as team coaches and coordinators in extracurricular programs such as a rocketry challenge. For the most part, Knotts says, the employees are contributing their own time.

The company began with high schools, but intends to begin implementing similar programs in middle schools that will feed the high school programs. "Essentially you create a pipeline within the public school system," says Knotts. "And what we're really doing is sowing the seeds today with these students that we hope to reap in about four or five years, as they become those engineers going out of an undergraduate program that Lockheed Martin can then hire."

While Lockheed Martin's investment in future engineers is a first step, the Center for Technological Literacy's co-directors argue companies should help fund more generalized tech education

When the National Academies published its 2005 report on preparing the next generation of technical workers, Rising Above the Gathering Storm—it sounded a wake-up call to companies such as Lockheed Martin (LMT), which realized it had to take a proactive role in the training of its next generation of engineers or face a dire talent shortage. But while corporations are only now waking up to this reality, others have been anticipating the need of pre-engineering curricula for more than a decade.

In 1990, Hofstra University engineering professor David Burghardt and New York public school administrator Michael Hacker set out to prepare students for a world they believed would increasingly demand technological know-how in all professions. With funding from small engineering companies in the region, they founded the Center for Technological Literacy, a program launched in 10 school districts in New York. In 1993, the National Science Foundation awarded the program grants which would enable them to work with teachers from hundreds of schools around the country.

Focus on Women and Minorities

The awareness and activism of big business in the classroom comes as a validation and a boon to the nonprofit's mission. "We're very much in favor of the initiative that Lockheed has engaged in," says Hacker. "We believe that it could be a model for other corporations throughout the country."

A particular strength of Lockheed's "Engineers in the Classroom" initiative, according to the educators, is its focus on training women and minorities for technical professions. "Women make up about 45% of the workforce across the country and only 12% of the science and engineering workforce. So role models—particularly role models who are female and minority—can play a very important role in encouraging young people to follow technical paths," says Hacker.

Developing a Tech-Literate Nation

The pair's positive appraisal comes with one caveat. In their 18 years of training teachers and developing technological curricula with the Center for Technological Literacy, they have learned that vocational pipelines, like the one Lockheed Martin hopes to build, can focus too narrowly on one kind of student, and one kind of career. "My concern is that we frame it in a broad enough context so that it works for all students, and not just students who are technologically inclined," says Burghardt.

Adds Hacker, "It's extremely important that we support the flow of technical talent through the pipeline so that this nation has a core of expert technologists, engineers, and scientists. But it's equally important, we believe, that all people have some grounding in technology so that we develop a nation of technologically literate people."

Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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