As Boeing’s Dreamliner fails to take off, so, too does interest in STEM fields

I’ve been following the story of Boeing and the grounding of its 787 Dreamliner fleet for the last month, though it’s been pretty hard to ignore: major airline manufacturer unveils revolutionary new aircraft that relies heavily on ion lithium batteries, only to see those same batteries heat up and force two flights to be aborted, putting Boeing’s plan for a roll out on the backburner.

The FAA and NTSB are now investigating the situation, investors and Boeing customers are watching warily and Airbus, Boeing’s main rival, is considering dropping their plans to unleash a similar electric-powered jet as a U.N. agency mulls putting the kibosh on the whole design.

Oh, the headaches for Boeing, which are actually worse than we realize. A little-known footnote in this story (though it should be a headline) is the fact that the Washington state-based company, along with the entire aerospace industry, is about to hit a massive staffing shortage.

Part of it is demographics. According to the Aerospace Industries Association, nearly 40 percent of the aerospace workforce is over 50 years old. But part of it is a skills gap; there just aren’t a lot of graduates going into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math for you neophytes) fields— only about a third of Bachelor degrees are in STEM fields in the U.S. compared to 53 percent in China and 63 percent in Japan.

And the dearth of STEM graduates is despite the fact that the federal government estimates a 20 percent increase in science and engineering careers over the next five years. Recognizing this disparity, the White House has tried to place an emphasis on STEM education, hosting an annual science fair and commissioning the 2010 report, Prepare and Inspire: K12 Education in Science, Technology and Math (STEM) for America’s Future.

At first blush, it looks like some of that focus may be paying off. According to a recent report by STEMconnector and My College Options, 1 in 4 seniors now express interest in STEM fields— that’s up 21 percent from the Class of 2004. But a closer look reveals it’s not that rosy. The spike actually returns the interest level to what it was before it precipitously dropped at the turn of the 21st century.

What’s more, initial interest doesn’t always lead to intent. Of the nearly 30 percent of freshmen who were intrigued by the idea of a STEM career, roughly 60 percent had abandoned that curiosity by the time they graduated.

This is clearly a vexing problem with major consequences for our economy, let alone the safety of our airplanes. What should we do?

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