(Re-published from PRISM | November 2016) Post-9/11 veterans were seen as a natural fit for engineering, based on their training and experience. Yet just a small fraction of returnees have joined the field. Why?
As a kid, John Filleau yearned to be a scientist, but the colleges he applied to from high school turned him down. So he went with Plan B: enlisting in the Air Force. “It was just good old-fashioned desperation,” he says. It also turned out to be a good career move. Enrolling in a community college while stationed in Florida, Filleau subsequently transferred to the University of West Florida. In between deployments to Iraq, a post-earthquake humanitarian mission in Haiti, and classified missions, he earned an electrical engineering degree, graduated debt-free with a 3.9 GPA, and now is pursuing a Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University. “The military beat a work ethic into me,” he explains.
Filleau’s late-blooming talent would stand out on any campus. But the pathway he followed into engineering is one that a number of educators hoped would be widely adopted by veterans under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The combination of technical training, leadership experience, military discipline, and maturity gained from years of service seemed to make many veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars a natural fit for engineering. The result would be an expanded engineering workforce that was also more diverse, reflecting the relatively large proportion of minorities in the enlisted ranks.
Such hopes remain well short of fulfillment. Although more than 3.5 million veterans or dependents have tapped GI Bill benefits since 2011—costing taxpayers $11.1 billion in fiscal 2015 alone—a 2015 Syracuse University study found “significant barriers to realizing the potential individual and societal gains from our country’s massive investment in veterans’ education.” Some 43 percent of service members and veterans reported having a military specialization, job, or training related to science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). Yet just 10,153 have earned degrees in engineering or engineering-related fields since the Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect in 2009, according to the advocacy group Student Veterans of America. A 2015 SVA survey of 1,352 current students found that only 8.1 percent were pursuing engineering.
From Torrent to Trickle
“Universities in general have not been proactive about service members,” concludes Corrinne Zoli, lead researcher on the Syracuse study and director of the university’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism. While describing the veterans’ experience overall as “largely positive,” she drew a stark contrast with the welcome extended to post-World War II veterans, whose university studies under the GI Bill underpinned the prosperity of the 1950s, produced 450,000 engineers, and expanded the American middle class.
“Not enough of them are going into STEM-related fields,” says Susan Lord, chair and professor of electrical engineering at the University of San Diego, who is conducting a four-year study of veterans in engineering. Some vets may leave the military seeking the quickest route possible into the workforce, she says. Others may not understand what engineers do or think that “you have to be a genius to be an engineer.”
Slightly less than half of all eligible vets even use their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, according to the SVA, which has 1,400 chapters on campuses nationwide. “Two thirds of student vets are first-generation college students. When people are transitioning out of the military, they may not have encouragement from relatives,” says SVA’s director of policy, Derek Fronabarger. Of those who do avail themselves of benefits, data show a wide gap between aspiration and achievement. Nearly a third of those surveyed by SVA in 2015 were pursuing a degree in science and engineering (25 percent when social sciences are excluded). Engineering was the third-most popular major behind business and health professions in the survey. But only 17.8 percent of completed degrees were in science and engineering fields, suggesting that student vets may start out in STEM programs but at some point change their major.
Vets are drawn to engineering for a number of reasons, including job prospects. “When [service members] are transitioning out, they’ll know they’ll have a skill that translates into the civilian workforce,” says Fronabarger. “For a four-year degree, engineering has great job opportunity, very good pay, and a lot of upward mobility.” Veterans with a security clearance are particularly sought after by defense contractors, says Joshua Pederson, who until recently was the program coordinator of Troops to Engineers at San Diego State University. He points to a freshman mechanical engineering major who was recently recruited by Northrop Grumman to work on the Air Force’s new bomber project in Melbourne, Florida.
Many expect their military training will give them a leg up. Veterans generally emerge from service with “pretty extensive technical training,” says Zoli. Depending on the service and occupational specialty, that could range from road-building to signals intelligence. The Air Force has particularly intensive training. Teamwork, often a necessary part of engineering practice, is essential to many military missions. A research team led by Laura Steinberg, then dean of engineering at Syracuse, noted in 2011 that many vets could be considered “pre-qualified” for taking engineering courses …
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