BAE’s Linda Hudson issues STEM challenge

As Linda Hudson departs as CEO of BAE Systems, the sad state of STEM education is top of mind. At the NVTC Titan's breakfast, she offers a challenge to industry and three steps for improving a critical national resource.

It what likely is her final public appearance as the CEO of BAE Systems Inc., Linda Hudson challenged the rest the technology industry to take on what she describes as a crisis in STEM education.

STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, ranks among the most valuable fields of study, with graduates being highly sought after in the defense, aerospace and national security industries.

With the current shortage of STEM talent, however, the nation faces a looming, competitive issue as the workforce continues to gray, said Hudson at the Northern Virginia Technology Council TITANS event on Thursday morning.

Hudson, whose last day as CEO of BAE is Friday, stressed the importance of addressing the diminishing workforce, and emphasized the need to build the size, strength and viability of STEM labor.

“When it comes to driving economic development and technological innovation, our STEM workforce is one of the greatest natural resources that United States possesses, and fortunately, it is a renewable resource – but only if we choose to renew it,” Hudson said.

That time is now.

Many claim that that the STEM shortage is not as big of an issue as Hudson claims, but she reminded everyone to take note of how no U.S. citizen has ever known a time where the United States wasn’t a leader in technological innovation. To maintain that tech superiority, the STEM shortage must be addressed, she said.

Part of the issue is young people’s perception of industries like defense, national security and aerospace; for young people, these industries seem like high-tech dinosaurs, Hudson said. Young people are far more likely to climb aboard commercial giants like Google and other companies with more flexible work environments.

Another part of the issue is the narrow scope of the STEM talent; “We must be willing to embrace and develop obvious, but overlooked, historically unconventional sources of talent: women, minorities and immigrants,” Hudson said.

She laid out three steps that can be taken to address the STEM shortage and ensure economic development and technological innovation in the future:

First, there is a need to establish common definitions and a consistent vocabulary for talking about the STEM issue, as well as the challenges and opportunities. “At present, the debate gets so tangled in the semantics of whether there’s a shortage or geographical disparity that we lose sight of the real issues at play,” Hudson said.

Second, there is a need to reevaluate the approach to STEM higher education. Hudson referenced math and science courses in college, and how many of those classes are intentionally difficult in an attempt to “weed out” students.

This kind of environment is too hostile for fields that are in such high demand. “What might happen,” Hudson said, quoting University of Maryland president Freeman Hrabowski, ”if, instead of constantly trying to weed students out of math and science early on, we tried to keep them in?”

Third, there is a need to gain a deeper understanding of what causes people to exit STEM careers prematurely or avoid these careers all together, Hudson said.

It is time to take a look at what it is that companies like Google and Apple do to draw so many young people in, and  it is time to make similar efforts within industries like defense and national security to attract, lure, satisfy and retain these young people.