Industry Market Trends

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Promotes STEM

Sep 30, 2013

Like many other organizations across the nation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) expresses concerns about the pipeline of college graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. As part of an effort to advance STEM in classrooms and inspire young students to pursue STEM careers, USACE has launched a new partnership with the Department of Defense.

STEM occupations will grow to only 5 percent of all jobs by 2018, yet these occupations will be critical to the nation's continued economic competitiveness because of their direct ties to innovation, economic growth, and productivity, according to recent findings from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

This forecast is of particular interest to the USACE, which relies on a steady stream of STEM-educated workers to complete its missions.

The USACE is billed as "the largest public engineering firm in the world," employing some 36,000 civilians and more than 600 military personnel in the U.S. and more than 130 countries. Today, USACE has only a few areas of concern, including structural engineering and geo-technical engineering, wherein it is competing with the private sector for talent.

However, USACE's pipeline is in trouble as the nation strains to train enough STEM-educated workers while grappling with current employees reaching retirement age. Nearly 19 percent of the USACE's workforce is eligible for immediate retirement, and another 22 percent is eligible for early retirement, according to the agency's latest human capital plan.

Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick, the USACE's commander, said that STEM fields have more jobs than trained professionals to fill them, and the gap will only grow wider.

"Only 14 countries in the world produce a smaller percentage of engineers than the U.S., including countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Cuba," Bostick said. "Out of 100 U.S. college graduates, four will be engineers. In Russia, that number is 10. In China, 31."

As part of an effort to inspire young students to pursue STEM careers, the USACE this summer signed an agreement to partner with Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools to bring engineering-related learning experiences to the classroom.

DoDEA plans, directs, coordinates, and manages pre-kindergarten through 12thgrade education programs for Department of Defense dependents that would otherwise not have access to a high-quality public education in six countries. DoDEA also provides support and resources to local education activities throughout the U.S. that serve children of military families.

The new joint program, called STEM ED, has three core objectives:

1. Connect and leverage USACE STEM professionals to establish a focused, sustainable partnership in communities where DoDEA and USACE activities are co-located.

2. Increase student awareness and interest in STEM curricular and co-curricular activities and careers.

3. Increase awareness of the need for more STEM-focused professionals to address USACE missions and the nation's future needs.

Through this initiative, STEM professionals will work alongside students on projects that design solutions to real-world problems using STEM-based methods and curricula.

"Unlike most other programs, we are embedded in the classroom over four  to six weeks, and we've built in conceptual understanding," Carla Shamberger, lead HR specialist and STEM ED's program manager at the USACE, told IMT Career Journal. "The program also provides face-to-face, hands-on, long-term interaction with STEM professionals, so teachers and students will be able to explore STEM challenges related to the USACE mission; experience engineering applications through a realistic, hands-on, problem-solving approach; and connect classroom study to real career possibilities."

For example, a science lesson plan might include a study of weather and a mathematics lesson plan might include a study of basic geometry (such as surface area), allowing students to "apply their knowledge to the calculation of wind forces related to the very weather that they are studying," said Shamberger.

Moreover, USACE instructors -- culled from military and civilian engineers and scientists -- might suggest designing a building to withstand a hurricane or tornado. The design would begin in a computer simulation program before an actual miniature model is built. Like professional engineers today, Shamberger noted, students would "test, refine, and test again."

USACE's Three-Pronged Approach to the STEM Skills Challenge

Another significant cause of the STEM talent shortage is diversion, in which students and workers veer away from STEM degrees and careers. Although data indicate that the U.S. education system produces enough talent to meet the 5 percent STEM job growth by 2018, much of this talent is being diverted from traditional STEM fields due to a growing demand for STEM competencies in other fields, such as business and healthcare services, according to Georgetown's CEW findings.

"Because of this diversion from traditional STEM fields, we are not producing enough STEM-capable students to keep up with demand both in traditional STEM occupations and other sectors across the economy that demand similar competencies," Shamberger said.

USACE is taking a three-pronged strategic approach.

First, the organization maintains a strong program to recruit, develop, and retain STEM talent.

"For example, we have a very active recruitment program, where we are partnering with engineering universities to connect with up-and-coming engineers and scientists," Shamberger said. "We have about 1,000 opportunities for student interns each year. Once on board, we offer stimulating, challenging, and rewarding work, including experience with diverse projects throughout the project lifecycle. We also offer our STEM talent continuous developmental opportunities."

USACE is also working with wounded soldiers and veterans to bring them aboard and help them develop a desire to further their education in STEM.

The second strategic approach is to leverage partnerships with other organizations to maximize strengths and achieve mutual objectives. The DoDEA partnership and resulting STEM ED program is an example of this.

The third aspect of the strategy is to recruit the organization's engineers and scientists for volunteer outreach and teaching efforts.

"Along with STEM ED, we have many grassroots efforts where our STEM talent is involved in their local schools engaging and exciting students about the option and possibilities of careers in STEM," Shamberger said. "We want to feed that STEM pipeline."