In the face of greying demographics, it is only reasonable to ask that question. Chuck Weirauch did just that.

Some firms and organizations in the simulation and training industry are reporting a shortage of employee talent to replace retiring engineers and other key support personnel. MS&T has solicited input from a number of companies and organizations to help determine if such a situation is having a significant impact on the growth and future of the industry. The query also asked key leadership as to what could be done to mitigate the impact. A 2017 Manpower Inc. company report stated that 40 percent of employers globally are experiencing talent shortages, piquing an interest in determining if there is a comparable S&T talent shortage.

Students participating in the annual Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program at the US Naval Academy. Image credit: Chad Runge/US Navy.

The results of the MS&T survey indicated that, while there are some reported local shortages in such areas as visuals engineers, currently there is no reported widespread lack of talent trend. This is, reportedly, unlike what is being experienced in just about every other major technical skills field in the United States that calls for a degree in higher education, such as information technology (IT).

According to the National Training and Simulation Association (NTSA) in its reply to the magazine’s survey, the organization lacks empirical data necessary to support the existence of a shortfall in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-related talent within the M&S community. “Nevertheless, we hear from our membership of an overall concern about actual or impending shortages in specific areas of expertise,” NTSA responded. This statement coincides with a US Department of Labor Statistics analysis of the STEM shortage that states that the STEM academic sector is generally oversupplied, while the government sector and private industry have shortages in specific areas.

Specific Shortages

One of the largest employers in the Orlando area hiring a considerable number of simulation and training specialists, the US Navy’s Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD), is one organization that did report some shortages of certain S&T employees, but only in very specific categories rather than across the board.

“For us here at NAWCTSD when we look ahead we can see that there is a potential shortage for the right type of talent,” said NAWCTSD Commander Captain Erik Etz. “We continue to see growth in the number of folks that we need to support programs out in the Fleet that we provide. For us, it’s focused on certain areas right now, not an overall shortage. When you talk about the things that we are doing, supporting the Navy’s Sailor 2025 program, we are a little bit short on the right type of instructional system designers and research psychologists.”

“And we see that growing”, Etz continued. “And when we look ahead at connecting our devices together, interoperability engineers are becoming really important to us. We are in competition with industry, and industry is doing a lot of great thing connecting devices together, so they have the same needs. So I think that we see shortages in very focused areas of engineering.”

So, while there doesn’t seem to be an observed and studied widespread shortage of talent across all S&T job categories, the bad news is that there are some shortages. And as Captain Etz cited, competition for such highly skilled and educated personnel is increasing exponentially as new technological fields open, while the dynamics and demographics of the workplace rapidly changes into a whole different type of environment than in the past.

Randy Garrett, Vice Chair of the National Modeling and Simulation Coalition (NMSC) and Senior Scientist for SimIS, commented that S&T requires a multi-disciplined skill set that is competing with other talent pools, and cited the growing demand and shortage of trained data analytic personnel.

“Mathematics, engineering, software development and operations research are core to both disciplines.” Garrett said. “Recent articles cite, for many reasons, that 40 percent of companies are struggling to find and retain data analytics talent. These are the same skill sets that are required within the S&T fields. So we are not only seeking good talent within the S&T community, but also competing with the large demand for trained data analytics personnel in areas such as cyber space, deep learning and advanced manufacturing.”

Another factor besides competition is whether there will be enough qualified graduates to fill the STEM-related positions such as those in S&T- related fields as older workers retire, and the industry continues to grow.

Influencers

While some studies indicate a lack of interest in such jobs by the country’s younger generations, another issue is whether the US educational system is providing adequate educational opportunities for students to help mitigate any real or perceived S&T talent shortage. But part of the problem could also be simply a lack of information.

Staffing and consulting firm Randstad North America recently performed a survey among a thousand 11- to 17-year-old students and found there is a misunderstanding of what STEM jobs are available. That, in turn, is making fewer children and young adults interested in pursuing the field as a career later in life, according to the report.

"Over half of the students say they don't know anyone with a job in STEM, revealing broad unfamiliarity with STEM skills and misperceptions about where these skills can be applied," said the company’s chief digital officer, Alan Stukalsky. “There's a lack of education as to what careers are available and what jobs are out there," he pointed out.

And finding out just what careers in S&T are available is difficult as well. There are no such listings for modeling and simulation occupations in the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Handbook and Dictionary of Occupational Titles publications such as there are for Aerospace Engineers and Technicians and Computer Hardware Engineers, for example.

And additionally, according to the NTSA, “a subset of the STEM deficiency debate is the fact that M&S is not considered a profession, and there is no data collected directly tied to M&S professional jobs, availability or vacancies. Because there are very few pure "simulationists" graduating from college, companies must grow their own internally to fill vacancies.”

Add to the mix that S&T positions call for skills from multiple disciplines and that very few institutions of higher learning offer degree programs in modeling and simulation. Factor in the questioned ability of the US educational system to provide not only the quantity but also the quality of STEM-related degree educational curricula, and one can see why a potential talent shortage has become a major concern to many in the industry.

“The shortfall could seriously impair the industry with the growth of M&S solutions for advanced manufacturing to include robotics, 3D Printing and Unmanned vehicles,” Garrett stated. “These require application and working knowledge of the hard sciences.”

New Specialties and Technologies

On the other hand, the NSTA pointed out that that many of the skills required in the modeling and simulation sector are not "hard core" sciences. “M&S needs specialists in such fields as graphics, psychology and storytelling, to name a few non-STEM areas", the organization’s response stated. “As the use of M&S spreads, the need for specialist advisors in many areas - medical, construction, distribution, manufacture and environment are examples - will only grow.”

Along with this growth and the integration of new technologies such as gaming and virtual reality into simulation and training, there will also be an increasing demand for people who have those kinds of specialties in the industry, said National Center for Simulation (NCS) Director Lt. Gen. Tom Baptiste.

“So you are seeing a different mix of workforce in the simulation companies today,” Baptiste pointed out. “You see the classic engineers, computer scientists and programmers, but now you are starting to see this additive, additional workforce that includes specialists in gaming or other areas that are becoming involved the development of simulation and training.”

Attendees at a STEM Outreach workshop at the US Naval Academy STEM Center explore different methods of making STEM topics a little more fun for students. Image credit: Jonathan Sunderman, Naval Research Laboratory.

Can STEM meet the challenge?

The subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math are collectively known as STEM and the US Department of Education states that “today, few American students pursue expertise in STEM fields” and that is the crux of the problem and the basis for national and regional initiatives to encourage the study of STEM subjects.

Some question the ability of STEM initiatives to help increase the awareness of opportunities provided by STEM-related careers and to encourage and assist educational institutions in providing improved and expanded educational curricula in these areas. Meanwhile, to help meet the technological needs of the country, many are pitching in to help assure the success of the STEM effort.

The NTSA, NSME, NCS and NAWCTSD are just a few of the organizations, governmental agencies and educational institutions, along with industry, that are supporting STEM initiatives. Both NAWCTSD and the NCS are working along with other members of the Team Orlando STEM effort to work with local schools to provide more awareness of the advantages of STEM-based careers, and particularly those in the simulation and training field.

“Once we go into the classrooms, elementary and middle school level as well as college as a part of our Engineering Mentoring program, the students can see the job opportunities,” said Robert Seltzer, NAWCTSD Director of Research and Technology. “So when they get their hands-on exposure and get into the material, they get excited and turned on to it. It’s when they don’t get exposed to it, or they get exposed to it by drudgery, as opposed to getting involved in a robotics club or something, that they don’t have the interest. I think that it’s a big job, and it takes really an army to get that exposure to the level that we want to see it, to actually affect the pipeline.”

“If a child doesn’t like math by the fourth grade, you have lost him,” Baptiste added. “So when you talk about a STEM track, you have got to find a way to penetrate the middle schools with examples of why math is exciting, why science is exciting, along with an entry-level understanding of engineering. We are working on ways to put simulation in front of schools, with examples such as low-cost flight simulators as an instructional tool. And it provides students with a hands-on immersive environment that is exciting to them, but also highlights the power of simulation and shows them how worthwhile pursuing a degree can be.”

“So I think that we have got to stay plugged into the middle schools, the high schools, the technical schools and college levels – to make students aware that there is an opportunity in the simulation industry for people who follow that STEM track.” Baptiste emphasized. “It’s a continuous challenge, but one that sets the stage to create that pipeline of talent that will feed the M&S industry.”

Recruitment Recommendations

Additionally, Garrett provided some insights to the S&T industry as to how to recruit more new employees into their fold.

“As an industry, there are some simple strategies that might work,” Garrett said. “First, showing the higher pay scales of M&S employees may help steer students into the growing field. Second, knowing that millennials thrive in multi-discipline environments, M&S careers are appealing as they are primarily composed of multiple domain collaboration. This leads us back to the M&S awareness factor.”

“M&S curriculum in school/training facilities is still in its infancy,” Garrett continued. “Industry and work places throughout the US are using M&S solutions daily to improve their bottom line through growing revenues and increasing efficiency. Awareness and proper classification of the workforce using this M&S would ultimately lead to more effective recruiting.”

Conclusion

While the discussion of a S&T talent shortage will continue, Etz feels that any such shortages will not slow down the growth of the industry, nor have a significant impact.

“There may be a near-term localized shortages that will create some headaches for a few folks to find the right talent to support the programs,” Etz said.” But I think that in the long run you will see the economic engine that is the modeling and simulation and training system respond.” 

Originally published in Issue 6, 2017 of MS&T Magazine.