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A way to end the engineer shortage

It's clear enough that the shortage of trained engineers and qualified engineering educators is a root problem with regard to this country's productivity and its international competitiveness.

Let me begin by identifying the major problems we must solve if we are to improve this process.

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First, constricted budgets not only won't support the necessary number of qualified teachers, they must also bear the burden of a greatly increased need for research. Because of taxpayer revolts and a general shortfall in budget expectations in many other sectors of our economy - not to mention inflation - there isn't much hope for substantially increasing university budgets.

Second is the need for a larger number of engineering students. Japan, with half the United States population, is graduating twice as many engineers as we do. Sixty-five percent of the students in Japan choose scientific and engineering fields. In the US that number is 30 percent.

Third is the matter of people already at work. This problem has . . . distinct aspects: remedial training to correct past short- comings; the increasing rate at which technical subject matter becomes obsolete means most graduate engineers must be essentially retrained every five years.

Fourth and finally is the problem of inadequate laboratory facilities. The rapid change in technology - specifically in electronics - obsoletes laboratory facilities at an ever-increasing rate.

There is no need to sit around and hope for budgetary magic that will somehow solve these expenditure problems. It won't happen. But through cooperation we can make better use of existing resources.

At Control Data we have engaged in extensive cooperative efforts - spanning nearly 20 years - to develop a computer-based learning system.

A computer-based personalized student instruction system such as PLATO offers many options, but a very important one for our topic today is the ability to deliver the first two years of an engineering curriculum with a minimum amount of faculty involvement. In this way, it can help alleviate the immediate crisis of a shortfall in faculty members and the inability to pay competitive salaries. Freeing those faculty members currently assigned to teaching basic courses makes them available for teaching advanced classes and individual student counseling and coaching. Let me conclude by outlining some sorely needed action which you as individuals could undertake.

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First of all there is an urgent need for a comprehensive national program to increase the number and quality of high school students seeking an engineering education - particularly among the disadvantaged. An effective community outreach program must involve cooperation by a local college or university, local industry, and the local school system.

The second challenge is to improve the productivity of engineering education itself. Our country has a desperate need for improved growth in productivity. What an ironic and tragic thing it would be if that need went unfulfilled because the engineering profession did not apply advanced technology to its own education process.