Our energy industry employs well over one million people today, yet nearly half of this workforce is expected to retire in the next 10 years. Presently, American universities are graduating fewer and fewer students in science, engineering, and mathematics. We need additional education and training programs, incentives, and visa policies that enable the American energy sector to attract and retain a new generation of human capital in an increasingly technological and globally competitive industry. We must entice young people to enter technical fields to build, maintain, and manage our nation’s energy systems.
Given the importance of the energy sector to the well-being of the U.S. economy, ensuring an adequate and adequately skilled workforce is a matter of national security. As the country’s energy sector expands to meet expected demand, thousands of additional workers will be needed to design, build, operate, and service tomorrow’s energy infrastructure. The drop in energy prices in the 1980s and 1990s, while welcome, had the perverse effect of leading to the closing of energy training and university education programs, many of which have not been resurrected or expanded. The demand for craftsmen (electricians, plumbers, welders, and machinists, for example), laborers, engineers, hydrologists, and other professionals is all expected to grow rapidly. However, the existing pipeline of new workers may not be big enough to offset the expected retirement of existing workers, which could result in the loss of critical institutional knowledge and experience.
The majority of graduate students in engineering and science fields at U.S. universities are not U.S. citizens. More than half of the doctorates awarded in engineering and computer sciences in the United States were to international students, according to the National Science Board. In the coming decades, the United States must be prepared to compete for talent. Restrictions on visa and immigration policies have deterred international graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and visiting scholars, who were otherwise likely to study and work in science and engineering fields in the United States. We need to do a better job of attracting U.S. students to these fields, especially as more and more foreign students—who historically stayed in the United States after school—are increasingly attracted to opportunities in their home countries. Until we do, we need to ensure that immigration policies allow U.S.-trained, foreign-born scientists to remain and immigrants with needed skills to work in the United States.
As we look to expand the number of graduates with science, engineering, and math degrees, we must also look to tap underrepresented demographic groups. For example, last year only 19% of students graduating with a bachelor of science degree in engineering were women, even though women accounted for more than 52% of all undergraduate degrees awarded. African Americans and Hispanic Americans are similarly underrepresented in the relevant areas of study. We must draw on the talents of all students at American academic institutions, from every background, to produce the daunting number of engineers, scientists, and skilled workers necessary to design, build, and operate America’s energy framework in the future.
The next administration must pay particular attention to effective education and training programs, incentives, and visa policies that enable the American energy sector to attract and retain a new generation of human capital in an increasingly technological and globally competitive industry.
As critical as this is, we must make a determined long-term effort to educate U.S. students even more in science and math, beginning in elementary school right through high school and college. Test results have shown that U.S. elementary students do reasonably well in science and math compared to their peers in other countries, but between elementary school and high school, the performance of U.S. students gets progressively worse. Somewhere along the way, our students are losing their enthusiasm for science and math and the valuable skills that will be needed in a highly technical global marketplace.
Improving the math and science curricula is a must, especially in the middle and high school years, to capture and maintain the interest of students. Recruitment of and training for qualified math and science teachers could help and should be pursued with greater vigor. The lack of a teaching degree should not be a barrier to otherwise-qualified people with educational backgrounds in math and science. School districts also should consider paying competitive salaries to math and science teachers and awarding raises based on merit, to both attract and retain qualified individuals. There are many individuals with exceptional backgrounds and skills, many of them retired, who—with the right incentives—could help address the shortfall in math and science teachers.
The America COMPETES Act, which was signed into law in August 2007, addresses in particular the insufficient investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. However, Congress has not fully funded the amounts authorized in the bill. Given the stakes, the next administration and Congress must fully and vigorously implement the STEM provisions to improve math and science in the America COMPETES Act.