The World's Forum for Aerospace Leadership

  • Donate
  • Press Room
  • Renew
  • View Cart
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Talent: Coin of the Realm, But Growing Scarce

    Thursday, 16 January 2014

    By Duane Hyland, posted at 11:55 a.m. EST


    C. D. Mote Jr., president of the National Academy of Engineering, delivered a keynote address on the difficulties of attracting, developing and retaining talent in the engineering community. He began by recalling Oliver Wendell Holmes’ statement that “The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, but in which direction we are moving.” Mote said, “We need to know where we are going; knowing what direction you are going in provides a lot of guidance - and what recent data tells us is that it isn’t going so well.

    “For the near term,” said Mote, ”talented engineering will remain the coin of the realm – the global environment for talent will remain competitive due to the short supply and emerging [demand] in emerging societies.” The demand will be high in “all countries and organizations.” The problem requires attention and action from “all those dependent on talent – namely government, industry and universities. Talent controls the future, the quality of life….Unlike in ancient times, where controlling land and resources was the key to power, talent is now the key. Everyone knows this, and this is what drives competition.”

    Engineering in the U.S., said Mote, has been divided into two periods in recent times – the Cold War period, where engineering was top-down and a matter of national security, requiring the U.S. to be on the forefront of all developments in science and engineering; and the more current, 21st-century view – that engineering solves problems and thus helps to meet the wants and needs of society.

    Mote warned that America’s stagnation in science and math means the nation can no longer be complacent in its quest for talent, which in the U.S. is dwindling. “The problem is complacency – since the end of the Cold War, the special circumstances that made the U.S. a talent attractor have diminished, and now nations compete for treasure. We have seen competitive nations in Europe and Asia investing in universities, infrastructure, competitiveness and talent. The number of students entering college in China each year exceeds those of the U.S., EU and Japan combined – 25 percent of Chinese students pursue engineering, compared to 5% in the U.S.

    “In this country we are seeing our students increasingly lured away from engineering by medicine and finance. Even U.S. universities lag behind,” said Mote. “The most competitive university admissions globally [are] to the Indian Institute of Technology, accepting 2% of applications; Harvard only accepts 16%, and the number of applications from India to the U.S. [has] fallen 16% in recent years.” Mote noted that “80% of engineering admissions in [U.S.] graduate schools are foreign [students].” 

    The talent problem also extends to our K-12 system. “Local school systems don’t see global competitiveness of student achievement as a priority – and [the] global competitiveness of the U.S. [is beginning] to decline, 36 out of 65 in the nations that drive the global economy. American kids lag in math, reading…And meanwhile, we are too busy teaching our kids to the test,” said Mote.

    After painting such a dark picture, Mote lightened up the canvas a bit with some ideas on how to reverse the nation’s declining fortunes in the game of attracting global talent. First, he urged, “we need to make sure kids are learning by doing – get  them involved in projects, give them hands-on experience. This isn’t a new idea – it goes back 2,500 years to Confucius; but it works, because these types of approaches engage kids in innovation and entrepreneurship.

    He urged the U.S. to “Increase ties in engineering across multinational and multicultural boundaries, as more of our engineering going forward will demand international collaboration.”

    Mote also discussed the notion that engineers should have to be prequalified to keep abreast of new methods and technology in order to remain “cutting edge.” And finally, he talked about the need to solve long-standing structural issues within the U.S., especially debt and the fractious political environment, as a way to guarantee that projects will still exist to attract talent.

    Mote left the audience with this thought: “Priority is reflected by national investment, research and infrastructure; talent [in the U.S.] has fallen – and other nations are developing [it] significantly.” The country “has to recruit and retain top talent and make the U.S. the most attractive place to advance engineering” he said. “Failing this, the U.S. probably doesn’t survive long term – this is a critical unresolved issue. These changes exacerbate the need for change, and [without that change] the drop-outs and the fall-off are too high to ignore – employers have to take the lead!”