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New Report Calls For More Science, Engineering Grads

July 15, 2008

A new report suggests that a high-profile push by business groups to double the number of U.S. bachelor’s degrees awarded in science, math and engineering by 2015 is falling way behind target.

Fifteen prominent business groups in 2005 warned that a lack of expert workers and teachers posed a threat to U.S. competitiveness, and said the country would need 400,000 new graduates in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields by 2015.

Since the report was first published in 2001, the group said the number of degrees in those fields rose slightly earlier in the decade.  But the number of degrees has since flattened out at around 225,000 per year.

There has been substantial bipartisan support in Washington for boosting science training, including passage last year of the “America Competes Act,” which promotes math and science, according to the coalition””which represents groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Defense Industrial Association.

“There’s been insufficient follow-through with funding to support the programs. Other countries are doing more to shift incentives toward science training,” said Susan Traiman, director of education and work force policy for the Business Roundtable, an organization of corporate CEOs.

“The concern that CEOs have is if we wait for a Sputnik-like event, it’s very hard to turn around and get moving on the kind of timeline we would need,” said Traiman, referring to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957, which prompted a massive U.S. commitment to science investment.

She said it still takes a minimum of 17 years to produce an engineer if you consider K-12 plus four years of colleges.

Many believe concerns from business about the number of science graduates is overblown and self-serving, saying that if there really were a pent-up demand for scientists, more students would naturally move toward those fields – without massive incentives from taxpayers.

But William Green, CEO and chairman of Accenture, a giant global consulting company, called such criticisms “nonsense,” adding the whole country benefits from competitive companies.

“This is on the top three CEO agendas of every company I know,” Green told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Accenture will hire about 58,000 people worldwide this year, and will spend $780 million on training, according to Green.

“I feel like I can step up to the table and say I’m doing my part. Other companies are doing the same thing,” Green said. “What I’m suggesting is I really could use more raw material. That’s about having federal leadership.”

He believes there has been a “laser focus” both in the public and private sectors, on developing work forces for competitive companies.

Tapping America’s Potential, the group that issued the report and has grown to represent 16 business groups, also argues that the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform has hurt U.S. competitiveness by making it difficult to retain high-skill workers who study at American universities.

The case for boosting bachelor’s degrees is stronger than ever, particularly for people who go into teaching, where teachers who have college-level subject training are generally more effective.

The National Research Council – a group that provides policy advice under a Congressional charter – issued a report last week calling for more support for professional master’s degrees programs. The idea would be to provide advanced training to more people in fields like chemistry and biology, which require less time and money than doctoral degrees.

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