Monday, September 30, 2013

The Mythological STEM Crisis

What I'm about to write is considered rank heresy in some circles.  But at least one prominent expert has taken a similar position, and he has backed it up with extensive research.  So here goes.

If you have spent any time in engineering education, either as a student or instructor, you have probably heard about the alleged "STEM crisis."  STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, and is the umbrella acronym for a range of academic subjects that (a) are obviously essential to the continuation of modern life as we know it and (b) are not mastered by enough students each year to ensure such continuation, at least in the U. S.  That is the story, anyway:  that we are teetering on the edge of a disaster in which our economy will crash and our technology will stagnate for lack of enough young people able to do science, technology, engineering, and math.

In a recent issue of IEEE Spectrum, a publication of the world's largest professional organization for engineers, author Robert Charette took issue with this claim, which he calls a "myth."  Why a myth?

A myth isn't a lie, exactly.  It's a story that may have elements of truth in it, but isn't necessarily wholly and literally true.  Nevertheless, there is usually a group of people who have a strong reason to believe in the myth, and repeat it over and over until belief in the myth spreads among the general population.  

Charette finds that, depending on your definition of what a STEM education or a STEM job is exactly, that many people holding STEM jobs do not have a bachelor's degree in STEM, or necessarily a college degree at all.  On the other hand, if you look at the pool of all graduates of STEM programs, most of them are currently working in fields other than STEM ones.  So it doesn't look like you necessarily need a STEM degree to get a STEM job.  And if you do get a STEM degree, unless you're lucky you are liable to end up in a non-STEM job anyway.

Anecdotes aren't statistics, but they make situations seem more real.  A student of mine graduated from my university a few years ago with a bachelor's degree in manufacturing engineering.  After an unsuccessful spring and summer looking for a technical job, he returned to school, attended another couple of years or so, and obtained his second B. S. degree, this time in electrical engineering.  Even with two STEM B. S. degrees, it took him over a year of looking before he finally found an engineering job last summer. 

If the STEM crisis was as severe as some would have us believe, people like my student would be snapped up before they graduate.  And average starting salaries in engineering would show a steady increase above average wages for as long as the crisis endured.  Neither of these things is the case, however. 

While some engineering students get jobs before they graduate with B. S. degrees, others, like the student I mentioned, have a lot of trouble finding suitable work.  And Charette notes that while average wages of STEM employees have risen faster than those of non-STEM employees over the last 30 years, the increase is not evenly distributed across all fields.  Engineers, it turns out, saw their wages rise slower than those of non-STEM workers. 

Charette suspects, and I agree, that the real reason the myth of a STEM shortage won't go away, is that it is in the best interests of those who employ STEM workers to have an oversupply from which to select the top echelon of graduates, while being able to let them go when business slows without concern that there will be a problem in rehiring when things turn for the better again.  Because the long-term employment model is now long gone, engineers can look forward to a series of short-term jobs with multiple employers anyway, and often the only way to get a raise in such an environment is to quit and join a different firm.  But as an employee, you always take the risk that you'll quit at the wrong time and be out of work for an unknown length of time. 

If the STEM crisis isn't all it's cracked up to be, does this mean that it is perverse and wrong to encourage more students to study STEM subjects?  Not necessarily.  For a variety of cultural and political reasons, K-12 education in the U. S. has fallen on hard times, and one way to help fix it is to encourage a renewed focus on STEM subjects.  There is little actual harm in running pre-engineering programs in high schools, and maybe some good results, although the longitudinal studies to prove whether such programs are really effective are so expensive that they are almost never done.  And other things being equal, providing more resources for students to study STEM subjects in college is a good thing too.  But overall, we might be better off leaving the system to adjust itself, rather than expecting that such programs will permanently put the alleged STEM crisis to rest.

As Charette points out, there is now a sizable educational and governmental establishment that is heavily invested in the STEM myth, and whose existence would be threatened if we all woke up one morning and had a good laugh at their expense by realizing that the STEM crisis is at least partly advertising rather than reality.  And turning such bureaucracies around is a political problem, not just an engineering problem.  But the first step in dealing with such problems is to realize that things aren't necessarily the way they are presented to us.

Politicians and governments can do only so much.  Most of the people I know who are truly content with their role in the engineering profession were not waylaid into it by a government-sponsored program.  Someone close to them, a relative or friend, got them interested in engineering, or perhaps they just discovered on their own that it is fun and (usually) remunerative to make things.  As long as a society allows enough freedom for people to choose their direction in life, and provides enough resources to educate those who can succeed in mastering the technicalities of engineering, there will be enough engineers to go around.  Maybe not as many as companies always want, but enough.  And the next time you read something about the STEM crisis, take what you read with a grain of salt.

Sources:  The article "The STEM Crisis Is a Myth" by Robert N. Charette appeared on Aug. 30, 2013 on the IEEE Spectrum website at 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Engineers and Technological Unemployment: What Are People For?

The ways that people make a living today are very different from what they were a generation ago.  In 1970, Detroit was still a bustling manufacturing metropolis, thousands of women earned a decent living as telephone operators, and many newspapers provided employment to linotype operators who spent their days at the keyboard of a clunky pile of machinery that molded molten type metal into sticks.  Needless to say, you will have problems finding a manufacturing job in Detroit these days, and the other jobs are history too.  Furthermore, engineers played an essential role in these changes, and leading the charge are those engineers who made computers and information technology the chief engine of creative destruction over the last few decades. 

And we are by no means done, according to a report by some Oxford researchers that was mentioned in the online magazine recently.  Carl B. Frey and Michael A. Osborne studied the U. S. employment picture and used sophisticated (and undoubtedly computerized) data-grinding methods to discover that almost half of current U. S. jobs could eventually vanish as they are taken over by "computerisation."

Some parts of this forecast are easy to believe.  If experiments by Google and others succeed in replacing human car and truck drivers with robot drivers, long-distance truckers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and anybody else who gets paid to drive something somewhere will have to find something else to do.  Among the ranks of engineers themselves, this sort of thing has been going on for decades too.  If you look at old photographs of the offices of large engineering firms in the 1970s, one of the most typical images is that of a huge open room filled with row after row of drawing boards, each one with its white-shirted male engineer.  The output of a roomful of engineers at drawing boards can be matched today by one modern engineer armed with CAD (computer-aided design) software.  The processes are so different that they are not directly comparable, but obviously, today's engineers have very different skills than the engineers of 1970, many of whom were little more than glorified draftsmen.  But is all this real cause for concern?  Or are we looking at the problem from too narrow an angle?

What so often goes completely unmentioned in discussions of technological unemployment, is the question of anthropology:  what is your model of the human being?  I think the model that most secular economists and researchers use is something like this.  All life is basically economic in character, and the ultimate good in this life is a smoothly functioning economy, wherein everyone capable of contributing to it works to the best of their ability and receives in turn the material benefits of their work.  That is a nice picture as far as it goes, but as a philosophy of life it's somewhat lacking.

For a completely different take on technological unemployment, you should read one of a number of works that were popular in the 1930s.  Even in the teeth of the Great Depression, writers such as C. C. Furnas in The Next Hundred Years went into optimistic technophilic raptures about how the increasing efficiency and productivity brought about by technological advances would let most people earn all the money they needed by working only one or two hours a day, leaving the rest of the time for leisure pursuits such as art appreciation and charitable work.  We have certainly gone beyond Mr. Furnas's wildest dreams of increased productivity.  So what went wrong with his vision?

I'm not entirely sure, but one factor seems to be the social consensus of what kinds of work and lives are to be desired, and what kinds are to be disparaged.  A short list of the occupations that are admired and envied in the U. S. today might start out like this:  movie stars, rock stars, the wealthy (regardless of how they made their money), sports figures, politicians (a few, anyway), . . . and it's going to be a short list because for the most part, we don't have true heroes anymore, just people who are famous for a bit and then fall victim to that favorite journalistic enterprise, The Mighty Brought Low. 

An even more important reason for the problem that most people seem dissatisfied with their occupational lot in life is that respect for ordinary, non-intellectual, perennial jobs that are nonetheless useful to society has largely vanished from the scene.  This disrespect can do tremendous psychological damage to those who hold such jobs, which in any economy is going to be the majority of workers.  Take janitors, for instance. Janitorial work is the classic job today that "don't get no respect," in Rodney Daingerfield's phrase. But it was not always thus.

My first job, outside of being paid by family friends, was sweeping the floor in a sign plant in Fort Worth, Texas.  It took me just about all day to work my way around the band saws, the bending brakes, and the vacuum molding machine.  There was no air conditioning, no breaks except for lunch, and by the time five o'clock rolled around I was ready to go home and flop—no heavy reading for this boy that summer.  But I was grateful for the work and the pay, and did it as well as I could. 

An amazing thing happened my last day on the job.  They gave me a going-away party, complete with a little cake.  I can still see their faces:  the grizzled old shop foreman who showed me the ropes my first day on the job, the skinny bandsaw operator with slicked-back black hair who always talked about how he'd rather be fishing, the red-headed cowboy who I saw one day taking liberties with the secretary (it bothered me until I found out they were married)—they thought enough of my humble sweeping up after them, to honor me and wish me well in the future. 

They did this, not because I had proved to be in the 99th percentile of floor sweepers nationwide, but because I had done a simple job with a reasonable amount of dedication.  They saw even such humble work as worthy of honor, and decided to honor me because I had done it well. 

If that deep respect for those who do any kind of honest work, technological or otherwise, were embedded in the ethos and psyche of this nation, the employment picture would largely take care of itself.  But those in charge of the economy would first have to believe in the honor of work, and then put their money where their hearts are.  And by and large, neither the money nor the hearts are in the right place today.

Sources:  The article "Don't look back—the machines are gaining on you" by Andrew Leonard appeared in at  The Oxford study "The future of employment:  how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?" is available for download at  The Next Hundred Years by C. C. Furnas was published in 1936 by Williams & Wilkins of New York.  

Interview:  After this blog was posted, it was carried on and led to an interview of yours truly with Drew Mariani, host of a talk radio show on the U. S. radio network Relevant Radio.  Streaming audio of the interview can be found on the Sept. 27, 2013 download page at  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Cars, Cameras, and Computers: License Plates for the 21st Century

Soon after we moved from Texas to Massachusetts in 1983, I went to the Registry of Motor Vehicles (which we always referred to thereafter as the Registry of Woes, but that's another story) and got Massachusetts license plates.  Ours had some fairly typical arrangement of letters and numbers (e. g. HGQ 796), but as we spent more time there, I began to notice that a few cars had plates with only three digits, or maybe two:  "967" or "76."  It took some asking around to discover what was so special about those plates, but eventually I found out.

Turns out that those two- and three-digit plates were handed down from generation to generation, possibly even bequeathed in wills.  You see, Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to issue license plates, in 1903, and the first plates did have only two or three digits.  Somewhere along the line, the bluebloods who owned the first cars with license plates decided that some visible trace of this distinction should be left to their descendants.  So they evidently spoke with their buddies in the legislature to allow these old plate numbers to be passed to younger relatives.  So eighty years later, any latecomers to Massachusetts (and never mind if you moved there as a three-month-old, that makes you a latecomer) could look around and tell which drivers were descended from families old enough, and presumably rich enough, to have owned one of the first cars in the Commonwealth. 

I don't know if this curious habit continues there today, but if it does, it looks like Massachusetts may have to figure out a way to tell computers about the achievements of remote ancestors as well as people.  There is a good chance that everyone's license plate in the near future will have not only visible characters, readable easily by humans and with some difficulty by machines, but will also bear an invisible barcode that is much easier to read by machine than the visible characters are. 

Most people know that computers can read license-plate numbers by now almost as well as people can.  These devices, known as Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR for short) use a digital camera and a series of algorithms to separate the alphanumeric characters from the background, which task is increasingly challenging these days when custom plates have pictures of everything from blue whales to your favorite grandchild.  Once that's done, the algorithms interpret the characters and send the result to law-enforcement officials or whoever is interested.  These ALPR devices are used in automated tollbooths on toll roads, as well as their more controversial use in camera-equipped traffic signals that generate tickets for people who run red lights. 

But ALPR does not read the plates correctly 100% of the time, and so 3M and other firms have developed a type of infrared-readable ink that can be used to print a certain form of bar code directly over the visible image on the plate.  3M claims that the invisible barcode is much more reliably read by automatic bar-code readers than the visible characters, and at least one state (Virginia) is seriously considering adopting the machine-readable barcodes.  I have heard a rumor (which was the inspiration of this blog, incidentally) that many if not most states already use them, but I have not been able to confirm this rumor.  It may be the sort of thing that some states would prefer not to be known, anyway. 

We Americans are very attached to our cars, partly because the automobile is perhaps the single most significant technology that enables millions to live more independent lives in many senses.  The mobility permitted by the automobile has altered much of the country's built environment and contributes to the sense of freedom symbolized in movies when a solitary car speeds away from the camera down a lonely desert road. 

Anything that compromises the privacy of the very private space represented by the automobile tends to get our attention.  Many new cars now carry in their onboard computers a system that amounts to a "black box" which records data on control settings, acceleration, and other information that is of interest to insurance companies and lawyers in the event of an accident involving the vehicle.  And now that many cars come with GPS and wireless transceivers, not to mention the cellphones people carry, it is no long stretch of the imagination to picture a Big-Brother government knowing exactly which checkpoints you passed when, any time it wants.  The technology is already largely in place.

But in a way, the invisible-ink barcode idea is only applying to automobiles what we have already applied to our persons.  We are long since used to carrying forms of personal identification that are designed to be read by both humans and machines.  The magnetic strips on your credit cards, the RFID chips in your driver license (that's the way Texas refers to it, not as a "driver's license") and possibly a company or university ID card, and the cellphone in your pocket that is kept track of by your phone company are earlier steps in this direction.  There has been a lot of speculation (including an article that I contributed to in a professional magazine) that sooner or later, having some sort of RFID chip permanently implanted in your body will either become popular as a voluntary form of self-imposed cyborgism, or will be required by the state at some point.

Compared to having an RFID chip implanted on your person, letting your state's motor vehicle office put invisible ink on your license plate is not that big a deal.  From a technical point of view, it's just an incremental improvement that will simplify and improve the accuracy of machines that read license plates.  But the very fact that someone thought it interesting enough to spread a rumor about it says that invisible ink on license plates may cross another invisible line on the way to a future that not all of us would like to see happen.

Sources:  In 2012, the Commonwealth of Virginia (that's how some former colonies refer to themselves) commissioned a study of license plates that mentions the invisible-ink-barcode technology, and is downloadable at$FILE/RD383.pdf.
The 3M firm has a news item on a "license-plate shootout" field test of various ID technologies, including their own, at one of the longest URLs I've ever seen:  And I also referred to the Wikipedia article on "vehicle registration plates."  The magazine article I contributed to appeared in Proceedings of the IEEE, "Social implications of technology:  the past, the present, and the future," vol. 100, pp. 1752-1781, May 2012.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Wisdom Literature for 21st-century Engineers

The other day I received a copy of a book written by a retired engineering professor and academic administrator named Lyle Feisel.  Prof. Feisel has found plenty of good works to do in his retirement, one of which was to write a column for The Bent, the magazine of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.  He has collected these columns in a book with the title Lyle's Laws:  Reflections on Ethics, Engineering, and Everything Else. University administrators as a group are not noted for their literary brilliance or scintillating wit, and I will admit I opened the book with some trepidation.  But even after I had read (and enjoyed) it, it took me a while to figure out what category of literature it was. 

It's not an ethics textbook, by any means.  There are no homework problems, and each of its forty or so chapters is only a few pages long, dealing with a separate topic introduced by the "law" in question:  a single word or phrase followed by a brief aphorism.  Even though the chapters are independent, a particular view of the world emerges from the whole as you read.  That doesn't mean it's a work of philosophy, either—Prof. Feisel uses no fancy philosophical vocabulary, and makes no pretense of adhering to any particular philosophical or religious system. 

Finally it struck me what the book was:  it's a work of wisdom literature for 21st-century engineers. 

Wisdom literature is what scholars call the literary genre represented by the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.  These books are collections of short, informal words of advice, without much in the way of overall organization or pattern, but rich with anecdotes, stories with a moral, and observations on human nature.  So is Lyle's Laws. 

Wisdom is not a word that gets a lot of use these days.  I once heard it defined as the ability to apply knowledge effectively, and that covers not only what engineers should do but what anyone with specialized knowledge has an obligation to do.  Many, if not most, of Lyle's Laws are not original.  For instance, No. 25, "Possibility:  If it can happen, it will happen" derives from that principle known to all working engineers, Murphy's Law ("If anything can go wrong, it will.").  But Feisel's form of the law allows for unexpected good things to happen as well, though you shouldn't count on them happening as a part of your design!  I heard a version of another law—"Discoverability:  Don't record anything you don't want the whole world to see"—from an older engineering professor in the 1990s, who told me he always warned his students not to write down anything that you wouldn't mind seeing reprinted on the front page of the New York Times.  But that's what wisdom consists of:  basic truths about human nature and human relations that are often learned by experience and passed on from generation to generation.  As C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Abolition of Man, it's as hard to devise a truly original moral principle as it is to come up with a new primary color besides red, blue, and green. 

But if there is moral medicine in Lyle's Laws, it is covered with a pleasant and engaging outer coating of war stories (some of them literally that:  the author is a Navy veteran), professional and personal tales that introduce many of the chapters, and a tone that is never preachy or didactic.  Sometimes you read a book and wish you could meet the author afterwards, and this is that kind of a book. 

This is true despite the fact that I found myself mentally squirming after reading a few of the chapters, notably the one entitled "Comfort:  Beware the cozy comfort zone."  Somewhere in the book I came across the question, "What do you know how to do now that you didn't know how to do a year ago?"  That prompted me to think about how much of what I do is simply more of the same, and how much is something I don't know how to do, but want to learn, even at the cost of some mental anguish and frustration.  This is an especially good question for tenured professors, who sometimes appear to the outside world to be entitled to coast for the rest of their lives.  Fortunately, I was able to come up with a few things I've learned in the past year, anyway, and I hope to add to the list as time goes on. 

Who should read this book?  I think there's a difference between who should read it and who will read it.  I would like every undergraduate engineering student in the English-speaking world to read the book (and so would Prof. Feisel, obviously).  If they did, and if they took the advice in the book to heart, they could avoid a lot of the errors, screwups, and cases of bad judgment that sometimes make the lives of young engineers as interesting as they are.  But that is a dream impossible of realization, short of some rich guy taking the notion to send free copies to all engineering schools.  I suspect that many of the people who will read the book are those of us in the late summer and fall of our careers, who can relate to the historical situations that Prof. Feisel alludes to and resonate with the truths he elucidates from his stories and experiences.  But the book would also serve as a good recommended read for engineering ethics courses, and I hope it will be used that way.

In my technical lectures, I occasionally mention a historical anecdote in connection with my technical topic of the day, and I have learned that a little of such material goes a long way.  Most young people, at least most young engineering students, are not that interested in history.  The spirit of our age is inherently forward-looking and views history as something to be overcome and surpassed, not something to learn from.  And for the most part, that is a good thing.  Too much regard for the past keeps you from moving into the future as fast as the next guy, as I have learned from my own experience.  But the human side of engineering is a function of human nature, which doesn't change.  And Lyle's Laws is one of the most easily read, and yet rewarding, works on human nature and engineering that I have come across in years.

Sources:  Lyle's Laws:  Reflections on Ethics, Engineering, and Everything Else, by Lyle D. Feisel, was published in 2013 by Brooklyn River Press, New York.

Monday, September 02, 2013

What We Don't Know About Chemical Accidents

The fertilizer-plant explosion last April 17 in West, Texas that killed 15 and demolished a good part of the town was only the most recent of a number of accidents involving hazardous chemicals that have happened in Texas over the years.  Home to a large number of refining and petrochemical plants and other high-tech industries, Texas has had more of its share of explosions, fires, releases of toxic and polluting chemicals, and other chemical-related accidents.  But when a team of Dallas Morning News reporters tried to answer what they thought was a simple, straightforward question about the frequency of chemical accidents, they found a mare's nest of conflicting and incomplete statistics.  Is this a basic problem that leads to a higher rate of accidents than we would otherwise have?  Or is it just an inherent difficulty that comes about because of the nature of chemical accidents?

The News reporters were unable to find a single database of national scope that answered the question they were asking.  I think what they wanted to find was something like what the U. S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) maintains on statistics such as cases of measles or rabies, or the National Transportation Safety Board's database on fatal accidents involving air transport.  But what they found instead was a hodgepodge of things:  raw unfiltered lists of emergency calls to the U. S. Coast Guard, lists of incidents investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and data collected by the Chemical Safety Board, which relies primarily on media reports—in other words, the reporters themselves!  They found glaring inconsistencies among the numbers cited by the various sources of information, and although they were able to identify 24 potentially serious chemical accidents in Texas between 2008 and 2011, they were almost sure that the true number was higher.

The first question in compiling statistics on something is to define exactly what you are compiling statistics on.  The problem of defining a chemical accident is not a trivial one.  Clearly, if I'm working in my garage and accidentally knock over a can of used oil that spills into the ground, that is not something that should be treated with the same seriousness as the West explosion.  But by some definitions, both are chemical accidents.  So first, a line needs to be drawn defining how serious an accident should be before it is logged into a database.  But how do you draw that line?  Should you log only accidents that resulted in casualties (deaths or injury to persons), or a minimum amount of property damage, or all accidents that involve certain types of particularly hazardous chemicals?  There are millions of kinds of chemicals, and the hazard to humans of many of them are simply unknown. 

Even if we agree that casualty-only accidents are what we want, the problems of privacy and legal liability come into play. As noted by the Dallas Morning News reporters, private firms are reluctant to share details of their inner workings that might leave them open to lawsuits or might prove repellent to potential investors.  As the aftermath of the West explosion has shown, the legal environment of chemical accidents is complex, poorly defined, and is the result of a tangle of criminal, regulatory, and civil codes that do not produce the kind of clear-cut situations that are easy to record in databases.

Not mentioned by the investigative reporters is a powerful external force on chemical industries which makes most firms maintain and enforce strict internal safety rules and records of accidents.  This force is applied by insurance companies.  My brother-in-law is the chief safety officer for a large firm that operates refineries in several states.  One of his main jobs is to travel to the home offices of the company's main insurers annually, and present detailed reports of his firm's safety records and the measures they are taking to make sure lessons are learned from near-misses in order to prevent bigger accidents in the future.  While these matters are handled out of the public eye, the desire to keep insured is one reason that the chemical industry as a whole has a safety record that is much better than it could be, considering the millions of pounds of hazardous material that passes through its facilities every year.  And in conversations with my brother-in-law, I have learned that firms quickly learn about accidents at other firms, and take steps to make sure those types of incidents don't happen to them too.  In other words, a good bit of what a comprehensive nationwide database of chemical accident reports would do, is already taking place: namely, information-sharing among the plant operators themselves.

Of course, there are always exceptions, which often tend to be among the smaller independent operators that can't afford full-time safety officers and large staffs.  The West fertilizer plant was one such operation, but it is not clear that having an accurate national database of fertilizer-plant explosions would have made much difference in the way that particular accident transpired. 

More and better publicly accessible information about chemical accidents is a desirable thing, and I hope that the West explosion will lead to a better system of gathering and presenting such data nationwide.  But if this goal is achieved at the cost of burdensome, onerous, and unjustly harsh regulations of industries which already do a fairly good job of self-policing due to the economic interests of their insurers, the price tag may be more than we should pay.

Sources: The Dallas Morning News report appeared on that paper's website on Aug. 24-25 at