Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Value of Receiving a Higher Education in the illities and Related Engineering Disciplines

by Russell A. Vacante, Ph.D.

With the ever-increasing cost of higher education and waning opportunities to realize a lucrative technological career, many students, especially those who are U.S native born, are steering their higher education sights away from a career in engineering.  Among those students who do pursue a formal education, few are actively seeking out courses of study in reliability, maintainability, supportability, logistics and systems engineering.  The reasons are many, however, they all boil down to “there’s little perceived return on investment.”

Newspaper articles and  television news programs frequently report on the increasing number of students graduating from college with huge student loan debt; a financial burden that follows them well into their adult life.  The repayment of their educational debt and the interest incurred, in many instances, is large enough to adversely impact their quality of life, e.g., marriage planning, purchasing homes, automobiles and more.  Exasperating as the repayment of student loans issue is, the opportunity to find well paying jobs upon graduating from college that will help to mitigate the economic burden of repaying their student loans is on the wane.  While it remains relatively accurate that students with engineering degrees often have a starting wage higher than their classmates graduating with non-technical degrees, it is also correct to say that well paying engineering jobs are increasingly becoming a scarce commodity. This is especially true for engineers specializing in “the illities,” e.g., reliability, maintainability supportability and logistics.  All of this leads us the next related subject to be discussed.

The cost(s) to run DoD cost and industry profits have increasingly been the driving force for acquisition reform and industry consolidation. This trend most likely began with The Packard Commission (1985) report on management and decision-making issues, gained momentum with the National Performance Review (1993) that promoted the commercial use of standards, followed by the Rumsfeld’s Challenge (2001) that underscored issues with an expanding DoD infrastructure and advances in industry technology outpacing the need within the DoD.

Most recently the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, The Honorable Frank Kendall, wrote in the Forward of the Performance of the Defense Acquisition System, 2014 Annual Report the following: “Most of the development and production on acquisition programs is conducted by industry under contract to the government. Therefore, we examine various incentive techniques to see how effective they are at driving cost, schedule, and technical performance.”  All suggesting that from 1985 to present the emphasis within DoD has been to increasingly shift DoD acquisition and technology tasks to industry, i.e., as means to reduce defense expenditures and remain on the cutting edge of advancing technologies.  How’s this working for us at a time when other advanced and advancing nation-states are graduating more engineers from college in one year than the U.S. graduates in ten years?

As I have discussed in a prior newsletter editorial, despite the numerous acquisition reform measures implemented by DoD during the last thirty years, disappointing performance, cost overruns and schedule delays remain a persistent nemesis of the DoD acquisition system.  The migration of DoD acquisition, technology knowledge, expertise and responsibility to industry, in many instances, has not streamlined the procurement of major weapon systems.  As DoD continues working at bringing down the cost of doing business, industry is also on a never ending quest to increase its profit margins.  It is well known within the industry defense community that senior technical employees frequently are among the first to get furloughed as a cost reduction or profit seeking measure while individuals with less experience and education are frequently retained or hired to assume the responsibilities and duties of those they have replaced.

The goal to make DoD more efficient while industry partners remain profitable is a notable endeavor. However, to do so at the expense of formal education and technical training in the engineering illities and technical fields in general is misguided. For example, the on-going DoD sequester has significantly reduced DoD and industry support of formal education and on-the- job training.  This is occurring at a period in U.S. history when the defense challenge from other countries appears to be escalating.  This seems to be a counter-intuitive approach to acquisition reform and national defense.  While the cost of promoting and supporting formal education and technical training in engineering and related illities initially may be more expensive, in terms of total life cycle cost savings, it will be proven to be cost effective to DoD in terms of providing systems with improved performance, fewer cost overruns and timely deliveries. 

It is important to note that lack of student interest in subjects such as reliability, maintainability, supportability/ sustainability and logistics is not what caused students to avoid pursuing an engineering degree.  It is low wages, questionable employment opportunity or well-paying jobs and long term, secure employment opportunities are influencers for them to seek other career alternatives.  Less focus on government cost savings and industry profit margins would be good for the engineering profession, educational institution and our national defense.

DoD is a large enough proverbial dog to wag the tail of industry with respect to establishing educational priorities within the DoD community.  When DoD leadership acknowledges the importance of and need for reliability engineers and related technical disciplines, industry will also make education and training a higher priority for its workforce.  As a positive consequence, colleges and universities will have an incentive to grow their engineering programs and students will once again view engineering as an intellectually fulfilling and economically promising career.

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