Military Embedded Systems

Populating the field (with engineers)

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November 16, 2020

Lisa Daigle

Assistant Managing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Populating the field (with engineers)
Photo: Laura Ockel on Unsplash

We’ve all heard the phrase “the graying of the workforce,” especially when it refers to the engineering and defense industries. It’s a fact that the average age for electrical and electronics engineers – many of whom are engaged in the defense industry – is older compared to the median age of other American workers. The median age of employed electrical and electronics engineers in 2019 was 44 years old, according to the most recent information from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The older-worker-heavy numbers are due to several factors: First, the Department of Defense (DoD) slowed hiring and workforce development during the so-called peace dividend of the early 1990s, during which the ranks of the civilian federal defense workforce shrank by more than 20%. In the corresponding private sector, cuts in large defense programs during that time kept students and novice engineers from entering the field. The result: Much of the experienced defense-engineer workforce will be heading toward retirement age over the next 10 years.

The BLS projected (note: these are pre-pandemic numbers) that overall employment of electrical and electronics engineers would grow 3% during the period 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations. According to the BLS, the rapid pace of technological innovation will create demand for electrical and electronics engineers in research and development, an area in which engineering expertise will be needed to design distribution systems related to new technologies. These engineers will play key roles in new developments in such areas as semiconductors and communications technologies.

What is the defense industry doing to address both a workforce that skews older plus the probability of increased need for engineering talent?

One such enterprise is Naval Horizons, a newly launched virtual effort from the Department of the Navy’s Naval STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education and outreach program. Naval Horizons is designed to inspire college students by raising their awareness of the real-world science and technology challenges of today and how these subjects are impacting the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Its approach is to deploy online videos covering nearly 20 re­search areas – including energy, additive manufacturing, and undersea medicine applicable to the Navy – in which scientists and engineers discuss their work.

The STEM outreach invites students to learn about naval topics by watching the videos and submitting a report on the state of the art and a futurist vision of the Navy and Marine Corps in 2040. The Naval Horizons team will review the submissions for technical sufficiency, evaluate the entries on a rolling basis, and award 3,000 entrants a $200 stipend.

“This is an excellent opportunity for college students to learn about a wide range of state-of-the-art science and technology areas applicable to naval challenges,” stated Sandy Landsberg, the Naval STEM Coordination Office executive and a division director in the Information, Cyber, and Spectrum Superiority Department at the Office of Naval Research.

Another initiative aimed at bringing college students into the defense-electronics fold is the Scalable Asymmetric Lifecycle Engagement Microelectronics Workforce Development program – known by its acronym SCALE – a $19.2 million multiuniversity public/private/academic partnership led by Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana) that will be used for workforce development in engineering universities across the nation.

At Purdue, the SCALE program is directed by Peter Bermel, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who brings together faculty across the Purdue College of Engineering with faculty from 14 universities plus personnel from the U.S. DoD, NASA, U.S. Department of Energy labs, and the defense industry to create a microelectronics workforce focused on national-security needs.

Universities will be involved in specific areas of microelectronics education and workforce development deemed critical to national security. Subject areas include radiation-hardening of microelectronics, emphasized at Vanderbilt University, the Air Force Institute of Technology, St. Louis University, Brigham Young University, Arizona State University, Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), SUNY Binghamton, Indiana University, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and New Mexico State University.

Faculty and students will focus on heterogeneous integration of electronics at Purdue, Georgia Tech, SUNY Binghamton, and Arizona State University, while system-on-a-chip electronics will be the SCALE focus at Ohio State University, Georgia Tech, Purdue, and the University of California, Berkeley.

“Today’s engineering students are energized by the grand challenges facing the nation,” says Mark Lundstrom, acting dean of the Purdue College of Engineering and the Don and Carol Scifres Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “To create this urgently needed U.S. workforce for microelectronics, SCALE partners will work with students across the nation to build strong relationships with government and the defense industrial base and to develop the new technologies needed for secure and resilient microelectronics.”

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