Getting beyond computers and robotics

Edward P. Salek, CAE, Executive Director | TLT Headquarters Report August 2018

Connecting an interest in technology to a career pathway remains a STEM challenge.

STLE’s STEM Camp program, now in its seventh year, helps students and educators learn how tribology impacts all aspects of life.
Photo courtesy of Robert Erck.

STLE’s 6th Annual Tribology STEM Camp was a highlight at this year’s Annual Meeting & Exhibition in Minneapolis, Minn. More than 40 students from a local high school had the opportunity to see demonstrations and participate in 12 tribology and lubrication-related experiments.

Since STLE’s STEM Camp program began in 2013, we have reached out to more than 300 high school students and educators in an effort to make them aware of how tribology impacts all aspects of life. Plans are underway already for the next event during the 2019 Annual Meeting & Exhibition in Nashville, Tenn.

While this program is an achievement worthy of celebration, the bigger story seems to be how much more work looms ahead. Powerful demographic and labor force trends will challenge efforts to restock the technical talent pipeline in our field.

STLE’s 2017 Report on Emerging Issues and Trends in Tribology and Lubrication Engineering confirms the situation. Nearly two-thirds of the 900 respondents rate the ability of the field to attract talented and educated employees as the major challenge in the coming years.

Their concerns are validated by the attitudes of what many people refer to as Generation Z, kids born in 2000 or later. A recent Chicago Tribune article reported on a joint study conducted by Ernst & Young and Junior Achievement USA. It found that teen interest in STEM careers is actually declining among boys and holding steady for girls.

The appeal of STEM careers among boys ages 13-17 dropped from 36% in 2017 to 24% this year. Interest among girls in the same age group remained unchanged at 11%. Somewhat surprisingly, respondents did name technology as one of two key skills necessary to prepare for joining the adult workforce and finding a profession. One word of caution: This was an unscientific online survey that polled 1,000 teens, all in the U.S.

One has to ask the question, “What’s going on here?”

A Chicago business executive cited in the story explained it this way: “Kids don’t understand how technology can be applied to careers outside of computers, coding and maybe robotics. That’s all they know, so they can’t really translate that interest in technology to career pathways.”

Comments from the Junior Achievement survey team and other business leaders provide food for thought on how STLE and the broader technology community might change that perspective.

Continued emphasis on giving students professional role models and direct experience to a field was cited many times as the way to drive home the point that a technology career can take many varied pathways. The STLE Annual Tribology STEM Camp fits this model, but multiple opportunities at the local level through similar camps, school visits, science fair sponsorships and other programs are needed.

The second point is to focus on better messaging about the profession, which is an important aspect of the STLE strategic plan. The crux of that message needs to be that science and engineering technology improves people’s everyday life. Students, and particularly girls who were surveyed, stress that they want a career that helps people. It’s the reason to emphasize how tribology plays a role in things like production of sustainable energy, reduced air pollution and emissions, lower cost of manufactured goods and less industrial waste. The emerging field of bio-tribology makes it an even stronger message.

A concluding thought. Remember that students who were surveyed identified two key skills they needed to prepare for the adult workforce. Being tech savvy was one, but the second skill the teens recognized was relationship building. Sounds like our message also needs to emphasize the importance of building a professional network through an organization like STLE!
You can reach Certified Association Executive Ed Salek at