America's challenge to inspire and educate future generations

Michael Fraser
Director of Public Works
City of Salina, Kansas
Member, APWA Diversity Committee

As those of us in the public works field know, there is not a day that goes by where public works does not touch our lives. The public services our communities offer and the infrastructure that so many times delivers these services are an everyday part of our routine. For most people, the areas of transportation systems, stormwater collection and protection systems, electrical service, water supply, wastewater disposal, along with many other essential services, blend into our lives and are taken for granted.

Our public infrastructure like most everything else is aging and requires repair and replacement. New technology advancements, growing demands, maintenance issues and changes in the expectations or priority of services bring about a need for redesign, reconstruction, or replacement. To accomplish this task takes skilled professional expertise. However, that expertise to build and repair infrastructure is eroding across this nation as many professionals retire, and fewer students are graduating with degrees in the areas of engineering, science and mathematics to fill the demand.

Many of us are reminded of this growing problem every time we advertise to fill a vacancy for an engineer or a technical professional. Each year these positions are more difficult to fill with qualified persons. In fact, it is just as difficult to attract a sizable list of applicants to choose from and, in some cases, we are not able to hire the professional personnel we seek. This is true in both the public and private sectors and is an area of great concern.

The problem is the result of a shrinking pool of engineering graduates and other key professionals. This stems from fewer students pursuing careers in math, science and technology in the United States and Canada while in many other countries the number of these graduates is increasing. The most disturbing aspect of this trend, beyond the issue of design and repair of infrastructure, is that our economic prosperity, quality of life and our national security are rooted in advanced technology and the ability for us as a nation to remain a world leader in innovative technological advancements. In many ways our country is becoming more reliant on the international workforce to fill the gap; and without a change in direction, we could see the United States slip back behind other nations around the globe as a leader in science and technology advancements.

The National Academies were asked by Congress: What actions can federal policymakers do to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper and be secure in the global community of the 21st Century? To accomplish this task, the National Academies created a Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century. This committee was made up of leaders in academia, industry and government—including several current and former industry chief executive officers, university presidents, researchers (including three Nobel Prize winners) and former presidential appointees. The report containing the recommendations from this committee is called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine).

The committee's recommendations identify that, "The challenge is immense, and the actions needed to respond are immense as well." They identified two key challenges that are closely tied to scientific and engineering dexterity and expertise. The challenges are "creating high-quality jobs for Americans, and responding to the nation's need for clean, affordable and reliable energy." To tackle these challenges, the committee recommended an action plan in four areas that focuses on human resources, financial, knowledge, and necessary capital for prosperity. These four areas are included in the K-12 education (10,000 Teachers, Ten Million Minds), research (Sowing the Seeds), higher education (Best and Brightest), and economic policy (Incentives for Innovation). Two of those recommendations relating to K-12 and higher education are as follows:

Sam Ali, Senior Project Manager, Psomas, Costa Mesa, California, shows design drawing plans of the Palo Verde Student Housing Project to University of California, Irvine, students.

10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds, and K-12 Science and Mathematics Education. Recommendation A: Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education. Action A-1: Annually recruit 10,000 science and mathematics teachers by awarding four-year scholarships and thereby educating 10 million minds. Action A-2: Strengthen the skills of 250,000 teachers through training and education programs at summer institutes, in master's programs, and in Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) training programs. Action A-3: Enlarge the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering or mathematics by increasing the number of students who pass AP and IB science and mathematics courses.

Best and Brightest in Science and Engineering Higher Education. Recommendation C: Make the United States the most attractive setting in which to study and perform research so that we can develop, recruit and retain the best and brightest students, scientists and engineers from within the United States and throughout the world. Action C-1: Increase the number and proportion of U.S. citizens who earn bachelor's degrees in the physical sciences, the life sciences, engineering and mathematics by providing 25,000 new four-year competitive undergraduate scholarships each year to U.S. citizens attending U.S. institutions. Action C-2: Increase the number of U.S. citizens pursuing graduate study in "areas of national need" by funding 5,000 new graduate fellowships each year. Action C-3: Provide a federal tax credit to encourage employers to make continuing education available (either internally or through colleges and universities) to practicing scientists and engineers. Action C-4: Continue to improve visa processing for international students and scholars. Action C-5: Provide a one-year automatic visa extension to international students who receive doctorates or the equivalent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or other fields of national need at qualified U.S. institutions to remain in the United States to seek employment. If these students are offered jobs by U.S.-based employers and pass a security screening test, they should be provided automatic work permits and expedited residence status. Action C-6: Institute a new skills-based, preferential immigration option. Action C-7: Reform the current system of "deemed exports."

The American Public Works Association is very much aware of these challenges that face our profession and is actively involved in addressing this problem area. President Larry Frevert expressed his concern over this issue at the APWA International Public Works Congress & Exposition in San Antonio, Texas last September. He has tasked the APWA Diversity Committee to establish and to enhance current programs to be proactive in promoting public works as a profession of choice for young people entering the workforce, and to encourage young people to invest in scientific, technical and engineering educations to help North America avoid a loss of economic strength and prominence in a world market driven by technology. Larry said:

"I truly believe that young people today have a better understanding and grasp of technology than many of us did at the same age. So in some ways, they are better prepared for public works careers than you or I were. I also believe that young people today are very altruistic and want to contribute to the betterment of society. I call on the members of our profession and APWA to take every opportunity to describe for young people how they have contributed to the betterment of society during their public works career. Whether it's designing a safe intersection, building a bridge that connects a community, operating a water or wastewater plant vital to life within the community, developing and implementing a recycling plan to minimize our waste stream, or maintaining the valuable public assets of fleets and properties; the people of public works make valuable contributions to our communities' quality of life daily. The theme of the 2008 National Public Works Week is "The Future is Now." What we as public works professionals do today will have major effects on or consequences for future generations. Telling young people how we are preparing the world for them can be a great encouragement for them to follow the path we have chosen as public works professionals."

In the fall of 2007, the APWA Diversity Committee established a Subcommittee on Generational Issues to help work toward these priorities. The Mission Statement for this group is "To recruit, develop, connect, empower and retain young professionals in APWA through increased opportunities and resources to enhance their professional development and success within the association and the public works industry." The key goals of this group are to provide recommendations to help lead the way to develop mentoring programs targeted toward college students and young professionals; attract college students and young professionals into APWA; and engage college students and young professionals as they become members of APWA.

The challenge before us is enormous as is the effort that is required to achieve these goals. Our leaders in education, industry, science, medicine and government are committed to ensuring that this nation remains strong and a world leader in the areas of technology and innovation. However, this effort will require more than good leadership. It will require the assistance and participation from all of us to help see that we do our part at educating the next generation and passing on our commitment to technological innovation and the aptitude of good old American problem solving.

Michael Fraser is Director of Public Works for the City of Salina, Kans., and serves as a member of the APWA Diversity Committee and Co-Chair of the Subcommittee on Generational Issues. He can be reached at mike.fraser@salina.org or by phone at (785) 309-5725.