The educational and economical importance of science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM), to the aerospace industry is immeasurable, “right down to elementary school,” said Director of Government Operations Steve Hendrickson of The Boeing Company at Wednesday’s keynote address for the Fourth Annual Arkansas Aerospace Summit.
The summit, held at the Fort Smith Convention Center, was also the first ever Arkansas and Oklahoma Aerospace Business-to-Business Expo. Approximately 150 were in attendance to network and to hear Hendrickson’s thoughts on the national challenges facing the aerospace industry.
According to the Arkansas Aerospace Alliance, more than 9,000 jobs in Arkansas are related to the industry, and total aviation and aerospace exports from Arkansas totaled $516.49 million in 2010.
Born in southern California and growing up near an Air Force base, Hendrickson lamented the loss of wonder that aerospace has in the eyes of a child.
“I vividly remember being led out of class to watch a great big airplane take off at Edwards Air Force Base. That was the X-15, one of the plane types flown by Chuck Yeager. If you wanted inspiration, all you had to do was look up in the air. In the Sixties, we had the Apollo moon shots. Aerospace was a national priority, and everything was positive,” Hendrickson said.
Hendrickson continued: “If you look back over the last ten years, what are your school children seeing in the paper? Plane crashes, bankruptcies, NASA funding cuts. None of this inspires the imagination.”
How does aerospace generate enthusiasm “when we don’t have the national headlines anymore,” Hendrickson asked.
“Professionals, if you’re not volunteering in your local schools, you should be. If you’re volunteering in your local schools, but have colleagues that aren’t, encourage them to do so. Educators, please take an interest. You as educators are in a very unique role. We don’t always look at workforce as a long term issue. Many times, all we see is that it’s Monday morning, and we need 30 A&P mechanics. But you, you can guide them. And if you’re a parent, please try to instill in your kids that engineering is cool,” Hendrickson said.
Hendrickson continued: “Many foreign governments that are sponsoring educational programs for aerospace are producing professionals at a rate that astounds where we are today. Right now we lead in many, many categories, but go down the line ten or twenty years. Japan produces about 20 percent more engineering graduates than we do.”
Describing the “typical path” of the engineer throughout the U.S., Hendrickson breaks down the numbers.
“In the U.S., four million children will enter the education system in kindergarten this year. If the past is any indication of those 4 million, only 25% of them will complete basic algebra in junior high. Only 9% will declare a S.T.E.M. major. Of those, only 4.5% actually graduate with a STEM-related degree.”
On a positive note, Hendrickson noted, higher education is seeing “encouraging trends.”
“What is going on at the postsecondary level is this: a student enters STEM, and is automatically coalesced into a working group with a teacher, who really cares, and gets a lot of individual attention for applied math and applied science. Any school that brings students into a small group, almost always produces a success with that student when he matriculates from the program,” Hendrickson said.
Proceeding Hendrickson’s address, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) wanted to “be a cheerleader and acknowledger of the significance and importance of the aerospace industry, and for all the component and potential manufacturers and all people engaged in the whole arena.”
“Moving forward, we need to be cognizant of two things: maintaining our presence in the aerospace industry and expanding and broadening our presence,” Beebe said. “I firmly believe the networking and collaboration going on here (at the Summit) is essential to finding our strengths and weaknesses as well as where our customers are, where suppliers can be found, and where business can be done.”
WORKFORCE TRAINING PUSH
Beebe noted a correlation between education and economic development.
“Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the high tech industries that require a higher skill level,” he said.
“When I went to college, we had a catalog, a thick book of every course offered at the university. It had the guidelines about what courses you had to take, what combinations you needed to graduate. The adviser threw it across the table at you, and the attitude was, ‘If you like it, fine; if you don’t, I don’t care, that’s what you need to get out of here.’ Those days are over,” Beebe said.
Beebe added that colleges should become “workforce training centers,” stating that educators need to be responsive to the needs of business and industry.
“We have to monitor and adjust what we’re teaching to be a client (of business and industry). If we’re not responsive, trust me, businesses will go somewhere else where government agencies are responsible,” he said.
Addressing businesses, Beebe said, “Part of the reason we as a state have not suffered is because businesses realize we will change what we need to do to accommodate them. Now we can’t be everything to everyone on every occasion, but we can listen to skill sets and curriculum needed. We can stay in touch with lab equipment and employee screening standards. We can know what type of screening environment will replicate the environment you put your employees through.”
Responding to the rapid changes in aerospace and technology, Beebe acknowledged that it was “changing so fast,” and that “we have to be able not just to train but to retrain people as the industry evolves.”
“We’re here for you,” Beebe told those in attendance. “Our people are here for you, and when we’re not here for you, we need to know about it so we can respond.”
To close, Beebe said, “Several community colleges are dedicated to being responsive to your needs. One four-year university is devoted to what you (aerospace industry) may need. The state of Arkansas is willing to assist in any way we can to maintain and also expand the aerospace industry. You are not alone.”
The last day of the summit will take place Thursday, Jan. 26, and will begin at 7:45 a.m. at the Fort Smith Convention Center.