Commentary: STEM - Past, present, future
March 19, 2013
By Ben Bremer
supervisory civil engineering technician
Mountain Home Project Office, USACE Little Rock
MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. - Back many years ago when I was just a youngster growing up in Mountain Home, Ark., we were routinely given the opportunity to tour the Bull Shoals powerhouse on school field trips and outings. I remember being mesmerized by the size and scale of the structure and all the amazing equipment and machinery that was involved in producing power and controlling water.
On one of those tours I remember meeting Woodsey the Owl, who I have since learned was very possibly a costumed Tracy Fancher, our current Project Manager here at Mountain Home, then just working his way through the varied assignments of a young new park ranger.
On shoreline clean-up days park rangers would have burgers and hotdogs cooked up and prizes ready for community volunteers who had toiled throughout the day to help get our lakes cleaned up. It was made fun and I wanted to collect the most cans so I could get that sweet U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hat, Frisbee or whatever cool trinket it was.
The Corps of Engineers was a major employer in the area too; we had crews of laborers, tradesmen, and professionals alike. During the summer there could have been as many as a hundred proud employees working to enhance the experience of the visitor and promoting the Corps missions and image. I often remember thinking of "what a cool organization the Corps is and wondering how one could become a part of it."
These days are a lot tougher; it seems most days involve defending our activities to at least one or two concerned citizens or running someone off from a closed area that used to be open for recreational use. It is increasingly difficult to convince a high school student that the Corps is a great place to work (and I believe it is) when their follow-up question is "Are you going to be affected by the sequestration that has been on the news?" or "Are you guys going to close more parks next year?" This is a real dilemma for our agency; and it is so important with our declining work force, budgets, and reliance on contractors that we can recruit and retain the best talent and inspire those youngsters to want to grow up and be a part of this organization, or at least be supportive of it.
We all know this isn't a problem unique to our agency, baby boomers grew up during a time of technological marvel, and the United States was a world leader in innovation and industry. It was cool to be a rocket scientist, or an automotive design engineer, or a physicist. These types of jobs were in demand, high paying, and real tangible results were evident in everyday life. It seems like in the mid 1970s and on into the early 1990s these trends started to change. Industry was moving overseas,government spending was in decline, and maybe we as a nation began to rest on our laurels. Science and technology fields became less inspiring, jobs more competitive, and the general ability to bring about great achievements became more complex and costly.
It took the glory days of the computer age in the late 1990s and early 2000s before we as a nation realized we had lost the "Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics" interest of a whole generation of our youth to other fields of study. That the lack of interest and excitement once felt for these careers in the STEM fields has put our nation in quite the pickle.
This brings us forward to today's movement to try and reverse this trend. More than half of the engineers and scientists in our agency are over age 45 and are likely to retire by 2020. The labor pool of these types of professionals and graduates, while slightly rising, is still far below what it once was. With current budgetary constraints and the general necessity to do more with less, it is so much more imperative each of our new-hires, interns, or recruits have that passion, work ethic, and sense of pride that once were signature traits of public service. And, it is also imperative we as an agency get out into the schools and communities to reach those kids who are just now trying to figure out what direction they want to take their education, or what type of niche skillet they want to pursue. We need to show them that the Army Corps of Engineers is a diverse workforce of professionals who do amazing things for our nation, that it is a good place to work, and that opportunities are plentiful once on-board.
We as an agency need to take initiative and make the effort to influence our local students and share the missions and visions of the Corps of Engineers. Some positive examples of our past partnership projects include the following:
The identification and signage of tree and plant species along hiking trails by high school biology classes.
Construction of park attendant storage buildings and gatehouses by high school carpentry and building trades classes.
Participation in local STEM events, such as judging robotics competitions, science fairs, or programs such as West Point Bridge Design, Quiz Bowl, Math Counts, etc.
Monthly mentoring of students as part of a school-wide community outreach program.
Inviting schools to tour our facilities and giving presentations about our missions and projects.
These are just a few examples of activities which could become commonplace with the right support and initiative. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters Campaign Goal number 4 is to "Recruit and retain strong teams; build and cultivate a competent, disciplined, and resilient team equipped to deliver high quality solutions." We need to seek out opportunities to get involved and to get the Corps story out to the communities. Explain what it means to be a part of the Corps, how rewarding these careers can be, and give advice on how to get from school-age, to intern-eligible. Even if these kids take on a STEM field of study and don't end up working for the Corps of Engineers, we have still served our nation well by helping one of our contractors, research partners, or "Made in USA" industries to have one more good quality applicant to interview. Essayons!