Fluid Power Fundamentals: More Educational Institutions Needed Now To Educate Workforce

The following article was first published in the December 2009 issue of the now defunct Today’s Fluid Power magazine.

In our previous article we discussed the need to develop programs to teach engineering, and specifically fluid power principles, to children starting in kindergarten or pre-K to spark interest in the profession and the industry. We briefly stated the reason for this need for new programs is the declining math and science scores of United States youth as they get older, and the shortage of people with fluid power skills.

Why is there a workforce shortage?

Bar graph showing science and engineering degree holders older than 50 by selected fieldThe American Baby Boomer generation is retiring or will be retiring over the next 20 years — taking with them their many skills. At the same time, Americans aged 25–34 today don’t possess higher skills than do their baby boomer parents according to The Accelerating Decline in America’s High-Skilled Workforce: Implications for Immigration Policy.

The US Census Bureau states the number of people aged 55 and older will increase to 73% of the total US population by 2020, while the number of younger workers will grow only 5%. Combine those statistics with the Hudson Institute’s estimates of nearly 40% of America’s skilled-labor force retiring in the next 5 years, and you have a massive skilled workforce shortage — one the US Bureau of Labor Statistics states will grow to 5.3 million by 2010 and to 14 million by 2015.

The National Science Board’s Science and Engineering (S&E) Indicators 2008 reports the problem is even more exaggerated in the science and engineering workforce where more than half of workers with S&E degrees are age 40 or older, and the 40–44 age group is more than two times as large as the 60–64 age group.

National Science Foundation - Age Distribution of Individuals in Labor Force with Highest Degree in S&E

It is estimated between 2004 and 2014 a half million engineers will retire, but Engineering Trends, an engineering education consulting group, reports that engineering supply lags demand by 7 years in the United States.

The reason for the lag in supply versus demand is because while the number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees overall in the US has increased by more than 50%, the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering has declined by almost 3 percent over the past two decades according to the S&E Indicators.

The American Society for Engineering Education reports US engineering enrollment grew to 403,000 in 2008 with 74,000 graduates receiving bachelor’s degrees, but that’s far less than Japan’s over 430,000 engineering students in 2005 and 100,000 bachelor’s degrees in 2002, and China’s 250,000 bachelor’s degrees in 2002. India is graduating more engineers than the US, but how many more is open to interpretation of available data.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) reports worldwide the average number of first-time graduates in science and engineering as a percentage of total first-time graduates is 23%. China (~40%), Korea (~40%), Germany (30%), and Japan (25%) are above the average, while the US is below the average at just over 15%.

The US lags behind other industrialized and developing countries for several reasons. First, only 7 out of 10 students who enter the US school system graduate high school. Second, less than 3.5% (or just over 100,000) of the 2.7 to 2.9 million high school graduates go into engineering programs. Third, there are large enrollment declines in years 2, 3 and 4, especially in underrepresented minorities.

Factors leading to the enrollment declines include the high cost — upwards of $50,000 per year — of engineering schools, the need for remediation in math (15%) and science (8%), too much theory being taught in the first year, and the perceived lack of quality of professors.

From a US fluid power standpoint, only about 16 universities of more than 2500 with engineering departments teach fluid power, and it is unknown how many of the 1200 community colleges teach the subject. Compare those figures to Europe where fluid power is taught in 412 schools, and you’ll see the industry lacks the educational institutions needed to develop the skilled engineers to develop new and innovative products, and the mechanics needed to maintain peak operation when in service.

What is the possible impact on the industry?

The first effect is monetary. AC Nielsen’s Cost of the Labor Shortage Study dollarized the effect of the pending workforce shortage. Fifty-three percent of the metal valve industry, which represents fluid power products among others, manufacturers surveyed placed the labor shortage cost for each at $50-$100 million over the next 5 years and 15% dollarized the effect at over $100 million.

That’s a huge impact, but more looming could be the US fluid power industry’s extinction. Its survival is dependent upon the continuous availability of individuals with post-secondary training.

While 20 years might seem to be a long time, in strategic planning terms, the industry has to act immediately!

They need to formulate a curriculum that fits the industry’s needs today and 20 years in the future. They need to develop funding streams to support educational institutions and students alike. Then they need to take the curriculum and funding to community colleges and universities alike and form partnerships with them.

Lastly, they need to establish a plan to retain the skilled employees they currently have and not throw them to the scrapheap because they ‘cost too much’ because in the long run it is going to cost the industry more to educate a new workforce than it is to retain and maintain the one they have.

Jeff Klingberg
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